Friday, June 24, 2005

Illusionary rails

aka GNS post #4

This post is, directly, a response to John Kim's post in his blog about the role of rail-roading, and how throughout the history of RPG theory, it has been pressed into different roles and used for various political purposes.

I don't mean to belittle the political dimension, because I think it is there, and the fact that functional illusionist play is Simulationist in nature has been used to tar Simulationists with an unpleasant brush, which is really ironic for reasons that I'll get into in a second.

The Forge tends to use "Illusionism" rather than the more commonly used term "rail-roading" simply because rail-roading traditionally means any number of things, and is traditionally a very negative term, and using a new term helps free it of some of that baggage. But the definition is essentially the same.

From the Forge glossary (edited for typos)

A family of Techniques in which a GM, usually in the interests of story creation, exerts Force over player-character decisions, in which he or she has authority over resolution-outcomes, and in which the players do not necessarily recognize these features. (references cut) Term coined by Paul Elliott.

And, the definition of Force, from the same source.

The Technique of control over characters' thematically-significant decisions by anyone who is not the character's player. When Force is applied in a manner which disrupts the Social Contract, the result is Railroading. Originally called "GM-oomph" (Ron Edwards), then "GM-Force" (Mike Holmes)

So, essentially, rail-roading aka Illusionism is a style of play where a single player (usually the GM) is effectively making all the important decisions about the direction of the game -- often in terms of story -- but also in terms of other things (I would consider the game where the GM's pet NPC meets all the challenges also a form of Illusionism.)

(There are also terms that distinguish the hidden form of this play -- Illusionism -- from more overt forms like Participationism. For the purposes of this essay, I'm talking about all covert and overt forms of this sort of play.)

Illusionism is almost entirely a dysfunctional form of play, meaning that the players of the game are generally unhappy and frustrated, often not even knowing why. To make matters worse, modern "adventure design," in the form of modules, metaplotting, and key characters, strongly encourages an Illusionist form of play. Man! It sucks!

And it is important to note that, as a form of dysfunctional play, it doesn't have a creative agenda at all. This sort of illusionism is breaking down, fundamentally, at the social contract level. Talking about what creative agenda it has is rather like talking about what sort of icing you're going to have on your cake, when there is in fact no cake at all, but rather some mashed potatoes. It is beyond meaningless.

But, I still hold that it makes sense to talk about Illusionism as a primarily Simulationist technique. Why?

Because there is another type of Illusionist play. There are, in fact, groups that report engaging in this sort of play willingly and having a good time with it. In other words, functional rail-roading where everyone has fun.

In this case (functional play) we ought to be able, as trained theorists, to identify a creative agenda no sweat. And, given that such games are usually devoted primarily to an exploration of the GM's pre-established situation (in the form of plot-line) and setting, that pegs them exactly as Simulationist.

So to recap: Rail-roading is bad, except when it is made good by the presence of functional Simulationist play.



Blogger Brand Robins said...

I have, in the history of my roleplay, run many illusionist games in which the players were fully happy and along for the ride. Rarely where they there because we'd talked about it and decided to go illusionist – this was well before I started doing namby-pamby crap like talking about game or admitting there were things I wanted out of game.

The last time I did such a thing was about 3 years ago now, and was an Exalted game with 3 players who were all used to illusionist play with GMs who were less nice than I was. I think there was a degree to which the less heavy-handed illusionism (less being tied to the rails and more all roads lead to Rome) acted as a release valve for them and let them enjoy the game, but I also think the game worked because I was very good at identifying what people wanted in the game and giving it to them.

The way I directed the game also worked very well into Exalted’s mechanism and modus-operandi. It was at all times a “save the world” game, with the first “world” being the village, then the country, then the continent, then the whole world. That was also the way that the game gave them little to no choice in what they did – when Yogshaggoth has eaten the moon and the gods are dying in the sky and the ancient prophecy tells you to go get the 4 seals, you pretty much go get the 4 seals. And with the way Exalted games tend to go so long as there are cool set-piece fights the players will often be happy. I even worked out a system in my head for how every session would go: opening narration and establishing shots, personal plot for character a, information dump, panorama and travel shot, set piece combat, personal plot for character b, information dump, panorama and travel shot, personal plot for character c, and final epic set-piece battle.

The players enjoyment of the game came from several places: the personal plots in which they had some degree of control over their choices (though notably none of them ever chose differently than I had assumed they would), the personal (to the player, not just character) nature of those scenes, the ability to go crazy with stunt narration, and really huge fight scenes in which the PCs got to go mono-y-mono with elder gods and such. They were there, as one of the players said, to be entertained and to find out what Brand had in store for them this time.

Interestingly enough, when I started moving towards narrativist games in which the players had real options and a real ability to make choices and establish whole parts of the setting for the specific reason of making the stories they really wanted to tell, the players were very underwhelmed at first. “It seems like a lot of work for no point” was a statement I heard more than once. Now, I’ll note that they’ve since come around, but even now I get people asking me if I’m ever going to run a game like the old days again, because they miss how easy and stress-free it was. (I tell them no, and they get disappointed.)

The game before that was a Tribe 8 game that was played very infrequently but in hyper-intense marathon sessions when it was played. In that game the players did know that all roads led to Rome, as we were playing the canon metaplot and everyone knew it. But because everyone was very hyper into the setting of the world and the development of the metaplot, and because I was able to throw personal scenes in which they did make real game altering choices into the mix with scenes that were bound and destined to turn out as they did, the players got into the game to the point at which crying was a normal part of the game. La Ludisto may have more to say on this, as he was a player in that game.

Anyway, the long and short of this is: I think many of us see Illusionism as being so dysfunctional because it is tied in with so many bad habits in which game becomes about abusive powermongering, and because it isn’t what we namby-pamby Forge-disaspora types want in our games. There are, however, people out there that like to entertain and people that like to be entertained, and people who want game to be an experience given to them (at least in part), rather than something they have to build. To many players they “earn and shape” the story with the quality of their acting, their immersion, or their tactical decisions in the set-piece combats where they really do have a choice, and do not need (in fact do not want) to have the responsibility for crafting world and theme and direction in their hands.

Much as it has been the source of much pain, there is a truth to be faced: many people get into storytelling games because they want to be told a story, not because they want to tell it.

6:24 AM  
Blogger JasonP said...

I think that nailed down, in a much clearer way, what I was saying in response to that post on hamsterproohecy: here.

Thanks ben!

6:57 AM  
Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

...I was totally going to use Brand as an example of functional narrativist railroading. Looks like he beat me to it.

7:03 AM  
Blogger Nathan P. said...

So when illusionism isn't bad, it isn't bad. Fair enough.

I'm curious as to whether you have more to say about a comment you made on my Illusionism post:

But I agree that it is more engineer than bricoleur, and thus fundamentally a pretty different thing from normal RPG play.


7:25 AM  
Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

As far as Brand's Tribe 8 game goes: Once you get some good players who understand story and character together with a good GM who understands story and character, and everybody involved trusts eachother and knows eachother well, it's almost difficult for the GM not to use some aspects of illusionism.

We had a quartet of characters. We all had a pretty good idea of what each character was 'about'. We explained this to Brand, who designed an adventure that would give us all an outlet to explore whatever that 'about' was. My guy was a often-overlooked non-combatant in a warrior society; Brand stuck him in front of Excalibur in the midst of a civil war. As a player I didn't have much 'choice' in what my character was going to do -- but playing out his actions was still enjoyable, and as I trusted Brand to go somewhere good, I didn't mind that I was presented a 'choice' that was no choice at all.

I've employed the same tactics, and it's really not even that complex. It does require, however, some understanding on the part of the GM and taking up a role as a provider, rather than a director. Your stance shifts from "This is what happens; what do you do?" to "Here is a situation primed for you to exploit for your purposes. Have at it." You aren't the arbiter of causality; you're dispensing candy. Really, it's a lot more enjoyable even from the GM's side of the equation.

7:26 AM  
Blogger Sven Holmström said...

I would say there is a good type of railroading or illusionism play where exploration isn't the main interest.

I mean this: You have quite fixed external story through which the GM guides the players. But the main interest is not in the external story, but in the characters/players reactions to and interactions because of the the external story. This is very common in Swedish freeform games, (because it's the easiest type of scenario to create, probably not the most powerful) but can of course be used everywhere.

Or maybe this is seen as interest of exploration, it's not completely clear to me.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Brand Robins said...


That's pretty much how the Tribe 8 games I played went. The Exalted games were similar, though slightly different in that a good part of the honest fun of the game came from kicking ass on a huge scale.

9:56 AM  
Blogger jhkim said...

Ben wrote: given that such games are usually devoted primarily to an exploration of the GM's pre-established situation (in the form of plot-line) and setting, that pegs them exactly as Simulationist.

I have to concur with others that this seems like more of an assumption than an argument. It's easy to peg anything as being "devoted to exploration" since exploration is defined as what role-players do.

In general, I too dislike railroading out of instinct. However, I think that to the extent that I and other players enjoy railroading, it is from the pre-determined story focus on the players as people. For example, the highlight of my Vinland game was a very linear scenario. I reported on it a year ago on the Forge as Spirit Tests in Vinland .

The spirit test scenario (which I have used a couple of times) is strikingly linear. And yet it is also potentially extremely powerful and resonant with the players as people. So while I instinctively recoil from the concept of linear scenarios, I don't think that we can treat them as known and simple.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Per Fischer said...

Brand and Sven, that's pretty much a description of one kind of Danish convention scenario which evolved in the early nineties and is still going strong. The quality of the prepared story/plot and the end product, ie. the printed, layouted scenario, just as important as how useful is was as a tool for roleplaying. The scenarios are often freeform (called "system less"(!)) or very loosely rules scripted, often with homespun rules. The Illusionism necessary in these scenarios has been broadly and willingly accepted by players and GMs - I think at least part of that is, as Brand says, it's very easy to be a player, you can sit back and relax and react (or not) to the GM's input, and most players I have spoken to say they like it and accept it.
Personally I have come to despise it, both as a GM and as a player, but it's still close to being mainstream at least in a large part of Danish RPG culture.
I think Ben's observation that Illusionism is actually Simulationalist in nature makes a lot of sense, but I have no clue, no clue at all, whether it really is.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Sven Holmström said...


What you describe is a really common type of game (the big tradition of Swedish horror freeform scenarios are exactly this). Requieres a lot of GM goodness. Because of tradition a lot of really good stuff are done within this genre, but generally I'm definitely tired of the format.

What I mainly was referring to, though, was a type of game where you really cannot "sit back and relax". It can go like this: Scene 1: You three siblings have just found your dead brother. The players play out discussions for half an hour. Scene two: Three years later you meet again when one sister's life has fallen apart.

You have these fixed scenes, which are shortly framed by the GM, (and predetermined) but the main focus of play is dialogue as reaction.

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll just point out that Computer RPGs are played daily by vastly more people than play Table Top RPGs (relative of course to the release schedule of new games).

And CRPGs are pretty much universally Rail Roaded. A few, like Eldar Scrolls, make some attempt at pretending the world really is open ended and you can do anything, But ultimately they're all pure Illusionism.

I'm currently playing Knights of the Old Republic which mechanically is computer d20. It was HUGE back in 2003. One of the most widely critically acclaimed CRPGS ever. Mainly because the story (somewhat surprisingly) is pretty darn good. It would make for one of the better Star Wars novels and would be a vastly more entertaining movie trilogy than the prequel tripe.

But make no mistake. Its on a set of rails you can't leave if you tried. You have only 2 real choices in KotOR. Which side quests to complete and which not (I'm pretty much trying to complete them all). And whether to go light side or dark side (which is really just a choice about which set of rails you want to ride down). All of the rest of the choices are minutia such as "which feat do I want to use to kill THIS Sith Lord".

I'm Loving It. Its one of the best CRPGs I've played in years. Now, I do have a soap box where I claim that CRPGs are not really RPGs in the same way that TTRPGs are. KotOR and its ilk are really more of a moderately interactive movie than a real roleplaying game.

BUT...they're hugely popular as moderately interactive movies. Far more popular than "real" roleplaying games.

Which leads me to conclude that Illusionism / Railroading isn't at all dysfunctional. In fact, I'd say the evidence suggests that Illusionism is really what the masses want. "Entertain me" is a far more common sentiment than "Let me Entertain you".

From time to time we've discussed what it would take to make roleplaying more mainstream. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the answer is "Make it MORE railroady, so the masses don't have to work so hard to be entertained by it".

I think Illusionism is only dysfuntional when the participants really don't WANT Illusionism and are promised that they aren't getting Illusionism; but in the end they are.

EVERY style of play imaginable would be dysfunctional under those conditions. What makes Illusionism an easy target is just that a great many game books (including Green Ronin's new "True20") espouse Illusionism as the proper way to play. Which encourages GMs who buy into that to force feed Illusionism or trick players into playing in an Illusionist game for their own good (because that's the way the rules say to play).

That's why there has been such a long history of dysfunctional Illusionist play. Not because Illusionism itself is inherently dysfunctional. I think Illusionism itself is probably the single most popularly enjoyed form of roleplaying there is for a very key reason. It takes a hell of a lot less brain power to play through the story of Knights of the Old Republic that someone else wrote than it would take to create the story of Knights of the Old Republic in a game like Universalis or Polaris.

10:44 PM  
Blogger Valamir said...


That last was me. It didn't take my log in for some reason


10:45 PM  
Blogger Brand Robins said...


You said, "And CRPGs are pretty much universally Rail Roaded."

This is true, and your observations are all ones that I've thought about (less coherently) in the past. The last time was when I was playing Final Fantasy X, a gorgeous game with a very good storyline that I really enjoyed. Totally on the rails (though you could wander around and fight random monsters and revisit villages in the second half of the game), but very good.

RPGs can do that and be functional and fun as well. However, CRPGs are getting very, very good at what they do. There are increasing numbers of plot choices (all roads lead to Rome style railroading) with better graphics, voice acting, and immersive capability. There are reasons why many professional RPG designers get hired on by the CRPG producers, and the culmination of their work and ours is starting to show in their medium.

This has lead me to wonder if, while illusionism isn't a perfectly good method of play, it may not be dooming to the hobby if it remains the main (and for many the only) method of play. If CRPGs can give you everything RPGs do, but better, then why play RPGs at all?

11:57 PM  
Blogger Nathan P. said...

I would also point towards the difference in medium between RPGs and CRPG's, in order of making the claim that sitting back and being entertained by someone else's story isn't roleplaying. It may be fun, it may be something that millions of people really enjoy, but it ain't roleplay.

I have little to back that up at this point, tho. Still interested in Ben's take on the matter.

12:26 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Brand, Joshua, Sven, Per, John -- I have nothing to add but, please, keep talking! This is great. I'm learning a lot.

John -- Did I imply that anything about railroaded play -- especially positive railroaded play -- is known or simple? I didn't mean to! I'm pretty sure of the creative agenda, but that doesn't mean that other stuff isn't up for grabs.

Ralph -- You know what's even more rail-roaded than CRPGs? Books! Plays! Movies! Music! Paintings! You can't even decide where the protagonist moves. Man, talk about railroading. Abstract pieces, like music or modern paintings, don't even have a character to identify with! Yet people just eat them up. Guess we'd better eliminate characters from games, then.

Don't get me started on how rail-roaded cuisine is.

My point is this: Video games are a totally different medium from RPGs. A more popular medium, yes. But also totally different. Thus, discussions using RPG theory terms to talk about video games (even character development videogames, often called CRPGs) is totally meaningless.

I mean, you can go down that line of discussion if you want. I just find it totally worthless, myself.

(Not meant as an insult to video games. I've designed two or three of them myself. Just a very different form than RPGs.)


12:29 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

x-posted w/ Nathan, who said the same thing that I did more concisely and less snarkily.


12:39 AM  
Blogger Valamir said...

As I said, Ben, I share that soap box with you regarding whether CRPGs are even RPGs in the sense we mean. So, yeah I agree with all that.

BUT in this case I think my comment regarding CRPGs being a) heavily Illusionist in nature and b) very popular and widely enjoyed is relevant enough to refute your notion that "Illusionism is almost entirely a dysfunctional form of play, meaning that the players of the game are generally unhappy and frustrated, often not even knowing why."

In other words IMO that statement is wrong. It cannot be considered almost entirely dysfunctional and it cannot be assumed that players are generally unhappy when we have proof that there are legions of players engaging in Illusionist roleplaying all the time and having enough fun doing so to make the style far more mainstream than the alternative.

So I have to conclude that Illusionism is NOT inherently dysfunctional but, as I said "..only dysfuntional when the participants really don't WANT Illusionism and are promised that they aren't getting Illusionism; but in the end they are."

To Brand's point I definitely think that computers can do Illusionism far better than Table Top play. We're far more willing to accept "you can't go there" from a computer because you literally "can't go there" There literally isn't any way to enter that building...its just a graphic. A living breathing GM would rarely ever get away with being so blatant.

Give it a few more years and computers will handle Immersion not only well (which they do already) but better than table as well. The twin pillars of "Entertain me through illusionism" and "Immerse me in the world" will most likely become pretty much the excluse domain of computers.

Now whether that means that TTRPGs game designers should avoid designing Illusionist / Immersive games because they can't hope to do such a game better than a CRPG could do is a pretty interesting topic in itself.

My only point here, however, was to use CRPGs as evidence that "Illusionism = Unhappy Players" is not true.

12:58 AM  
Blogger Brand Robins said...

Actually, I'm going to see if I can get some of the players from my Exalted game to do a bit about what it was like from their POV and if they felt it was illusionist and all that. I can go on all day about how cool a GM I am, but it doesn't give a lot of insight. Something from players of those games, however, might.

(Which is why I liked reading La Lud's post. I knew that he saw right through what I was doing in that game, and he's a hard guy to read so I was never fully sure of his take on it.)

2:32 AM  
Blogger Sven Holmström said...

I don't have much to add for myself at this point, but I will let the Swedish freeform scenario writing-group Vi åker jeep (We go by jeep) have their say.

They have a very nice wiki where they explain *their* type of freeform and they have the good taste to do this in English.

Their text on railroading is here.

If you want to read everything, go to the first page and *follow the jeep trail*. If you don't read everything please remember that they sometimes write in a specific context.

5:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ben asked me to bring this over here, and I'm glad to do so in spite of some misgivings about the fragmentation of discussion across two related blogs (in this case, John Kim's and this one). Anyway, here's what I wrote:

I can't agree at all that Simulationism deserves to be associated specifically with Illusionism.

In Chapter 5 of "GNS and Other Matters of Roleplaying Theory", Ron Edwards describes Illusionism as a kind of Simulationism, but his example shows a case of Illusionism arising out of the impossibility of the GM being the author of a story whose protagonists are controlled independently by the players. The desire to create and enjoy a story is an N goal; if illusionism is used to support this goal, but fails to satisfy the participants, then illusionism is dysfunctional narrativism. On the other hand, the players' desire to feel that their characters' actions have a real effect on the game is a Simulationist goal (exploration of character, situation, etc.) If illusionism is used in an effort to satisfy this desire, but fails, only then can it be considered dysfunctional simulationism. So laying the problem exclusively at the doorstep of Sim is unfair.

Now, you could say I'm using an overly-simplistic and downright wrong definition of Narrativism. I may be, due to a less-than-complete familiarity with all the essays and threads. I can see an objection that Narrativism doesn't consist merely of producing a story that's enjoyable for the participants: rather, it entails making decisions that address a Premise. So if the GM is really just illusionistically presenting a story, the players won't be addressing a premise because they aren't making any real decisions.

I have two problems with this objection. First, the theory claims that G/N/S cover the entire space of creative agendas. However, if Narrativism is defined as "addressing a premise through the decisions of the players of the protagonists", and if we take it as given that the PC's are the protagonists, then I'm afraid that something is being left out. What if the goal of play is to establish an engaging issue in the game world and develop it as a source of conflict, but it is not deemed necessary to address it through the PC's? What if the players enjoy seeing all this engagement rather passively? If that isn't Narrativism, it clearly isn't Gamism, so it must be Simulationism. But that would mean that it prioritizes one of the elements of Exploration, the closest thing being Situation. To accept this we'd have to accept that Situation can be a moral issue (a Premise in the Egri sense, though not in the GNS sense since GNS only has Premises under Nar). More important, we'd have to accept that the Situation is being Explored passively by the players, since the GM is making all the real decisions. This is roughly how Edwards handles the matter in "Narrativism: Story Now" under GNS Incompatibility. ('Producing a story via Force Techniques means that play must shift fully to Simulationist play. "Story" becomes Explored Situation...')

So problem #1 is: why is the goal of passive Exploration of a moral Situation considered to be Simulationism, but the goal of passive engagement with a Premise is excluded from Narrativism? (Note that these forms of passive enjoyment could be associated with "audience stance", if you accept that it exists.)

Problem #2 is related: why is Narrativism defined in terms of a method ("establish and develop a premise, then resolve it through the decisions of the players of the protagonists") rather than as an aesthetic goal, or way of enjoying an RPG? In general it does not appear to me that Forge-theory is consistent regarding treatment of the creative agendas: are they aesthetic goals, broad design/GMing techniques, descriptions of play, or decisionmaking priorities for the participants? It really seems to me that this inconsistency is how Simulationism gets saddled with Railroading/Illusionism, particularly in the GNS Incompatibility and Ouija-Board Roleplaying sections of "Narrativism: Story Now".

I get the impression that, historically, the reason Ron Edwards in particular and Forge-ites in general associate Illusionism with Sim is due to dissatisfying contact with Vampire and an over-literal interpretation of various roleplaying texts to produce the "Impossible Thing to Believe Before Breakfast". (Which I might add is a terrible example of Forge jargon: it's impenetrable, it's based on a tendentious characterization, and it can easily be taken as an insult.) Now, I haven't played Vampire and I can't read anyone's mind. But the scenario of the "vampire" players that runs through "GNS and Other Matters" has as one of its major themes the idea, if you project a Narrativist agenda onto the so-called "Storyteller" system, you're in for a disappointment. (See the Incoherent Design section of Chapter 5.) GNS theory is advanced as the cure for this disappointment, with the major innovation being the discovery of explicitly Narrativist game-playing--and since Narrativism is the cure, anything associated with the "disease" can't possibly be part of Narrativism.

12:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll add that Sven's comment about having a fixed external story run by the GM in the interest of generating character (and player) reactions and interactions jibes well with the idea of "passive Narrativism" (only now maybe I should use "reactive" instead of "passive".) It's related to how Ron Edwards describes a PC operating in a functional illusionist game: "the character 'works' insofar as he or she fits in, and the player's enjoyment arises from contributing to that fitting-in".

If your enjoyment is just coming from contributing to "fitting-in", then I think you might accurately call that a reactive Simulationism. However if there's a moral problem (an Egri premise) from which the players derive enjoyment by reacting as players-characters, you have a reactive Narrativism.

1:19 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Elliot --

The reason I asked you to bring this over here is that it seemed to be way more a response to my post than it seemed to be a response to John's post, thus I find it more appropriate to be here.

Also, because I wanted to say this: Guys, let's not dogpile on Elliot. If it is okay with him, I'd like to keep this conversation between him and I. If you want to respond to something I said, or you have an idea about how things can be better phrased, please contact me privately first. Essentially, the "no dogpiling" rules from Sven and GNS should apply to this conversation.

Right, moving on.

Before I get into a response to your post proper, I wanted to clear something up from your first sentence.

I can't agree at all that Simulationism deserves to be associated specifically with Illusionism.

Simulationism is not a person, nor an animal, nor a plant. It is, in fact, a theoretical construct. Inasmuch, it does not "deserve" or "not deserve" anything, excepting perhaps that it deserves a rigorous theoretical shakedown to determine whether or not it is a useful theoretical construct and how it relates to other theoretical constructs.

It is emphatically not an identity label. If I say that something that you consider "bad play" is "simulationist" I'm not insulting any "simulationists." I don't even know what "simulationist" means as an identity label. "A person whose has, in the past, enjoyed games which might be classified as Simulationist in terms of the GNS theoretical classification system," maybe?

Are you with me on this?

I think you might be making a (rather natural, rather frequent) category error when you are talking about creative agenda. This is important, 'cause it is a totally different thing from "GDS." GDS, as far as I can tell, is talking about the imagined contents of play -- do you have more "story" or more "game" or whatever (if you are curious, I can tell you where this fits into the Big Model -- it ain't in Creative Agenda, though.) GNS emphatically is not talking about the imagined contents of play. Rather, it is talking about the interactions between players at the table and solely about interactions between players at the table.

I think that, when you look at things in this light, a ton of your objections disappear. Allow me to expand on that a bit.

First and foremost, any "diseased" or unfun about Illusionist play is, by necessity, not play in any of the Creative Agenda types. Quite simply, the Creative Agendas are descriptions of ways to have fun in gaming. No fun = no creative agenda.

Can people be trying for a certain creative agenda, fail, and get unfun railroaded play? Yes, and I'm sure it happens all the time, with the GM shooting for any of the creative agendas. I think that this sort of play generally emerges from a lack of trust between the GM and the players -- the GM doesn't trust to players to make meaningful decisions, so makes them all himself!

So can unfun rail-roaded play result from a failed attempt at Narrativism? Yes! Absolutely and totally! Also from a failed attempt at Gamism or a failed attempt at Simulationism.

So now we've gotten unfun play out of the way. Let me talk a bit about why I believe that fun rail-roaded play is necessarily not Narrativist or Gamist, and some thoughts about why it is necessarily Simulationist.

I consider all the stuff about Premises and Moral Issues and whatever to be secondary if we are speaking in terms of the imagined contents of play. Let's talk about the interactions of players at the table.

This is what has been working for me recently: Both Gamism and Narrativism require and thrive on particular moments between the players, moments when everyone around the table looks at one (or two or three) player and says to themselves "oh my God, what is he going to do *now*?" If the question relates to a tactical or strategic situation, it's Gamism. If the question relates to a Protagonist making a difficult choice, it is Narrativism.

(If you respond to this with "I play Sim, and I thrive on those moments, so Sim must have them too, I have only one response: Consider that maybe you aren't playing Sim.)

In terms of rail-roaded play, you can see why this is not going to work out. If the GM is making significant decisions in stead of the players, there is no moment where everyone looks at the one player and goes "oh my God..." The GM is unlikely to trigger such a reaction, because he has set up the situation and thus knows its resolutions and outcomes, and the players will be given no chance to have such moments.

I need to follow up about Sim in a later post -- I have to run out and go to a movie now. Am I being clear so far?


2:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ben, I will respond either here or over at John's blog later, but perhaps in the meantime you can answer two questions:

1)How do the two paragraphs beginning with "I consider" relate to Forge theory as represented by other leading lights such as Ron Edwards, Vincent, Ralph, and the Forge articles? With regard to those paragraphs, is it all the same thing or do people differ from each other and/or the articles Ron wrote a couple years ago.

2)What does "oh my god what is he going to do now" have to relate to in order for "it" to "be" Simulationism.

Thanks, and talk to you later.


5:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And another question, then some prelimary comments.

The question: I'll take you up on your offer--please point out where in the big model the "story or game" issue is located?

Now to comments.

First, I have to say that one of my reactions to your focus on my use of the term "deserves" is to take offense. On the one hand, you misconstrue my use of the term and use it as a jumping off point for some condescension. On the other hand, to the extent that I chose "deserve" for its nuance--so that I could fit both "logically merit" and "morally merit" into the same word--I was very much addressing the political issue which was the subject of John's post in his blog. (The same goes for my paragraph on Vampire and "disease".) Over here you've moved the political dimension to the periphery, but since you invited me to bring the post over it's a little weird to then take me to task for thinking in political terms.

Now, if that comes across as an overly hostile or harping reaction, let's just say we're even, forget about it over here, and move on to questions bearing directly on your blog entry: when functional illusionism happens, is it necessarily happening in the context of Simulationist play? And if this is judged to be so under Forge-theory, what does it say about the theory itself?

I'm tempted to wait for your answers to my earlier questions, but if you promise not to pin me down, I'll move on to some thoughts about both questions, bearing in mind your admonishments about how to view and how not to view CA's.

The answer to the first question appears to be that, yes, illusionism must be part of Sim play. This follows from your saying that the highpoints of Narrativist play are wondering what a protagonist (a PC) is going to do next when facing a difficult [moral?] choice.

It doesn't change this if I take an alternative view of Narrativism (or maybe just an alternative way of identifying it), from Vincent here, that Narrativism happens when the group collaboratively addresses/creates theme. The "collaborative" part makes it impossible for Narrativism to contain Illusionism.

Either way, since G/N/S by definition covers the entire space of CA's, we're pretty obviously left with Illusionism under Sim, as a kind of Exploration of Situation.

But this just brings us back to my Problem #1. Simulationism gets the stepchild Illusionism because non-collaborative Exploration of Situation is deemed to fit under the rubric. Once again this is straight out of "Narrativism: Story Now".

At the moment I see three ways out of Problem #1:

a) Accept it: Sim is whatever isn't G or N.

b) Consider redefining Sim as a Creative Agenda. I.e., as an agenda it must entail doing something, not just watching. So it requires collaborative Exploration. At the heart of this is the question of whether we can have roleplaying without real (active) collaboration. With this approach, Illusionism potentially falls outside of Sim, either into a new category or it becomes non-roleplaying. But we can...

c) Consider whether the GM-Forced treatment of Situation under Illusionism is providing an opportunity for collaborative Exploration of other elements, especially Character.

That's about all I have to say for now but I'll finish with a GNS heresy: if Simulationism is defined as collaborative Exploration, then why shouldn't Theme be considered as a sixth element of Exploration (or as a special kind of Situation, as already implied)? In which case Narrativism becomes a kind of Simulationism, specifically, simulation of a world with unified metaphysics in the philosophical sense, thus unlike our own but like most fictional worlds. Or put another way, Narrativism is Simulationism in a world where stories are real.

3:59 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Eliot -- Boy, that's a lot of posts to answer to at five in the morning. And I still owe you the explanation of why fun railroading is simulationist, rather than just not-G, not-N.

Okay, with regard to the purposefully-somewhat inflammatory and political language of "deserve" and "disease:" I am totally opposed to politically influenced development of theory (and, make no mistake, all gaming theory is still in development), especially in terms of identity-categories that were wholly invented (no one is opressing anyone, here.) I will object to it here. I will object to it over at John's blog, if you want me to cross-post the selected bits. I often do object to it on Vincent's blog, and on the Forge.

There are a couple of different ways that we can interact here. You can yell at me about justice and fairness and "deserves." We can do this paltry thing where we "agree to disagree." We could try our hardest to prove to the other one that "NO! I'M RIGHT!"

I'd rather not have any of these interactions. Here is the interaction that I want to have, ideally: I want to try to explain to you, to the best of my ability, what I am trying to say, since your response indicated to me that you were confused. I am also willing to listen to anything that you have to say in response to it, once I know you understand it, and commit to understanding your response. To the extent that you are willing to try to understand me, I'm willing to explain myself and, afterwards, I am willing to try to understand you to the extent that you are willing to explain yourself. If, at the end of the process, you still think I'm wrong, that's fine with me. We will at least understand each other.

Does that sound like a reasonable plan to you? If not, would you like to have some other sort of interaction? What?

(the following is assuming that you're cool with "mutual understanding" as a goal.)

Let's shunt "where in the big model is GDS" issue off to a seperate post, where you GDS afficianados can tool me for my misunderstanding seperate from this issue ;-) I'll contact you when I write it up.
Here are answers to your two questions, from the first post.

1) The two paragraphs starting with "I consider" are pretty much exactly Forge-theory of creative agenda as it stands right now, as long as you read the "I consider" as a genuine statement of "this is the that way that I think about things" and not just a polite mask for "this is right, and I think the rest of those putzes are wrong." Talking about narrativism in terms of Egri's literary theory has worked well in the past for some folks, including Ron and, to a lesser extent, Vincent. It doesn't work for me. We are talking about the exact same thing, we are just talking about it in different ways.

2) First off, since I realize I was not explicit and thus unclear earlier: The "he" in "Oh my God, what is he going to do now" is referring to the player at the table and not to the character in the game.

(This is really key to some of the misunderstandings going on in your second post, particularly with regard to Narrativism.)

As far as I can tell, from the games I've played which were Simulationist, "oh my god what is he going to do now" never happens in Sim play or, if it does, it is the cause of unpleasant, unsatisfying play. So there is nothing that it has to relate to in order to be related to Sim. It simply never is. The joy of Sim play is much more subtle and based on the imagined contents of the game, rather than the players themselves.

Okay, so here's the third point.

I am not a proponent of Sim-as-stepchild. If you look back at my previous entries, you'll find that I'm very interested in fourth CA possibilities, so clearly I can't just go with "not G, not N, must be S!"

But you're still hung up on the difference between the creative agenda being about the imagined contents of the game. It isn't.

You can have Narrativism focused on any combination of:

You can have Gamism focused on any combination of:

You can have Simulationism focused on any combination of:

Creative Agenda is a totally different beast than Exploration. Creative Agenda is talking strictly about the interactions of the players of the game as real people around the table (yes, including the GM) and how they relate to the contents of the game as creators.


5:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ben, I'm going to skip over the first 30% of your post. I already acknowledged that we should move on. The political and personal stuff is important to me, but we can butt heads over that some other time/place.

Thank you for your answers to my questions. I feel there's some equivocation in your claim to be on the same page as Ron et. al., but that's fine: if I think there's a difference between what you say about Nar and what the others do, I'll just accept that we're talking about your interpretation instead of getting confused. It may turn out that after further reading, the difference will go away for me, but for now: when in doubt, you're the authority on Forge-theory (subspecies: Ben Lehman). I'll still refer to the others (texts and recent expressions) to fill in gaps, but if my understanding of them doesn't match your view of things, we'll work on clarifying my understanding of your view.

So, right now I'm having trouble with your description of Creative Agenda. You write that CA is strictly about the interactions of the participants in the game as real people around the table. You also write that the joy of Sim play is based on the imagined contents of the game, rather than the players. (I assume that players here includes the GM; BTW, would you mind if we referred to "players + GM" as "participants" so we don't have to keep clarifying this point?)

Anyway, can you see an apparent contradiction between saying that CA is about the interactions of real people, yet saying that the "joy" of the Simulationist "creative agenda" is not based on the participants? All right, maybe the "joy of" a CA isn't what the CA "is about". But what interactions do we find in Sim play (which as a CA must be about some interpersonal interactions)?

3:56 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Eliot --

This is really important. Before I invest any more time and energy into this conversation, I need to know what your goals are.

My baseline assumption for theoretical conversations is that the goal is mutual understanding. Other people have other goals.

Is your goal mutual understanding? If it isn't, please tell me what it is so I can direct the conversation accordingly.

This is the sort of thing we could do with tone of voice and body language if we were face-to-face.


4:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wouldn't still be here if I didn't want to understand the issue you raise in your entry. I'd like to understand how your understanding of RPG's leads to the conclusion that "good railroading" can only exist under Simulationist play. To understand that, I need to understand your theoretical categories and how they relate to each other. If I feel that there's a contradiction or ambiguity, that's going to impede my understanding, so I ask questions.

There is a related goal, which again is relevant to John Kim's blog, namely, what sort of process goes into the construction of theoretical frameworks? Is it purely logical and empirical, or are there also emotional, psychological, aesthetic, or political factors? If so, what are they?

But just because I was thinking about the political thing before, that doesn't mean I don't want to understand your Illusionary Rails article.

4:36 AM  
Blogger Brand Robins said...

By the by, I did get some of my players to talk about illusionism and the things they got and didn't get out of it on Yud's Dice -- in this post here:

10:53 AM  

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