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According to the GNS Theory, there are three main different sorts of games: Gamist, Narrativist, and Simulationist. I won't bother giving their descriptions here because the link sums them up better than I ever could. I can easily think of many good examples for Gamist style systems (D&D 4E, Legend) and Narrativist (Unknown Armies, Don't Rest Your Head), and for Gamist-Simulationist Hybrids (D&D 3.5, GURPS). What I haven't been able to find an example of is a pure Simulationist system. GURPS is quite possibly the closest I can think of, but most systems tend to fall into Gamism, Narrativism, or one of the two in combination with Simulationism, never Simulationism alone.

Are there any examples of pure Simulationist system? What does a pure Simulationist system look like?

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9 Answers 9

up vote 33 down vote accepted

The exposition of GNS theory itself denies that a "pure" game of any of those is possible while still being a roleplaying game, but we can easily talk about simulation-heavy games, even if we can't talk about "pure" Simulationist games.

From the gist of this question as I understand it, you're just puzzled that you can find strong examples of only Gamist and Narrativist games, and you only really need one example to be satisfied that exemplars of heavy Simulationism exist generally.

For the one counter-example I would offer HârnMaster in any of its editions. Concerned with simulating a medieval-like world, it dispenses significantly with balance among characters or "encounters", and its mechanics are not built to emulate a narrative structure, leaving it low on Gamist and Narrativist scales and high on the Simulationist scale.

Simulationist games are rare in practice because it takes quite a strong commitment and taste for simulation to enjoy a game that tries so much to not be very game-y. It takes significant intestinal fortitude, so to speak, to put up with a first play session that entirely involves being a hapless serf wandering alone in the forest after fleeing your lord's lands and then dying to blood loss from a wolf tearing open your leg, and to put up with it enough to actually enjoy the immersion of that hardcore degree of simulation. Such gamers exist (hi!), but those who can enjoy Simulation to the near exclusion of Gamist and Narrative controls on events are few enough that they're not often catered to.

Besides, doing Simulationism well is the first "tech level," if you will, in the development of RPG design history, so such gamers are already well-served by existing games. So that's another reason you're having a hard time finding them: the majority if them are old games, with few improvements left to make that their audience would care for.

Rob Conley has written an extensive Actual Play post on a session of HârnMaster that is a good example of what a Simulationist game ends up being like. There is a lot randomly generating character details in order to create a character that has a background and starting features that are statistically realistic in the setting (such as having an allergy to shellfish, being born of low stock, having been enslaved, or lamed at a young age). Play involves a lot of "slice of life" detail that makes the world feel like a real place. Of particular note on the Simulationism/Gamism difference, note the nature of the cave in that play report: no smooth floors and interconnected passages on a consistent level as a way of making caves convenient for gameplay reasons – instead, it's like a real cave, with frustratingly fractured terrain that barely qualifies as a floor, difficult squeezes, and the rare flat area that's inhabitable. Note the way combat works, too: it's all about injuries, shock, passing out from pain, playing to your strengths when you can, and suffering the turns of random luck when you're not playing to your advantages. There is heroism there; but it's small, hard-won and not taken for granted, much like a hero you'd read about on the local news is a hero for having good luck at the right time and place when they could have as easily ended up a victim.

A final note.

This answer starts by taking GNS theory as a given and works inside that framework to help explain it. In reality, GNS has a lot of holes and problems – enough so that it's largely considered flawed and obsolete, even by its creator Ron Edwards. However, its replacement, the Big Model, is a many-tentacled beast that is hard to get a mental grip on, and it still uses the fundamental concept of a threefold division in major play styles (and so doesn't thoroughly repudiate the GNS way of thinking about roleplaying), so in practice it hasn't supplanted GNS theory in the popular discourse. The Big Model does attempt to address the discrepancies that people are pointing out in how GNS gets (mis)used, though – the quibbles with me calling a game "Simulationist" are entirely fair. Still, it will be some years or decades before we can expect talk of "Simulationist games" to fade away and be replaced by talk of designers who mechanically support a "right to dream" play agenda.

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GNS describes modes of play and not RPGs per se. Specific game systems may cater to a particular approach (System Does Matter, to some degree), but often you can easily apply any GNS agenda to a wide variety of games.

You describe GURPS as hybrid gamist, for example, but I've played in very simulationist GURPS games - and D&D games. HarnMaster is a good example of a system that lends itself well to sim, but you can do it with many games.

World of Darkness is a good example of a system some people play very Narrativist, when they are focusing on Storytelling, but I've been in plenty of combat-monkey Gamist/light Sim WoD games as well.

No game can be perfectly sim (accurately simulating the world is too much for any ruleset), but as long as you let the GM rule on a reality-based model, and focus on the in-character experience over the rules, you can do sim with it. Some games are more actively antagonistic towards sim (some indie games, 4e) but most trad games had the virtue that you could accomodate all three play agendas in them with only a little work.

Now having said that, there are a lot more sim focused games in the modern and future areas - Twilight 2000, Blue Planet, Eclipse Phase, Call of Cthulhu... Though I'd say that there's a strong undercurrent in fantasy gaming too as things like Game of Thrones are extremely gritty...

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I ask this question understanding that yes, these are methods of play, but some systems are far better at one method than others. nWoD works as Gamist/Narrativist, but depending on sensibilities, mechanics may have to be ignored for Narrativist play. In some systems, Gamist play is impossible without greatly reworking the system, such as in Don't Rest Your Head. In others, such as Legend, Narrativist play is far more difficult, since it's a gamist focused system. The system in question I was looking for was a pure Simulationist focused system. Riddle of Steel comes to mind as being close. –  shatterspike1 Feb 4 '13 at 2:33
TRoS even bills itself explicitly as being narrativist... Detailed combat mechanics != sim. –  mxyzplk Feb 4 '13 at 13:04
The spiritual attributes are the thing that make it narrativist, I was under the impression that the combat mechanics were intended to be as close as possible to reality. –  shatterspike1 Feb 4 '13 at 16:54
@shatterspike1 I thought of TRoS too, since the combat system is very simulationist. If you used the combat system and ignored the SA system then you could call the result simulationist, but as a whole it's a Nar-Sim hybrid and the SA system is an implicit consideration the design of the combat system, so it's not easily isolated in practice. –  SevenSidedDie Feb 4 '13 at 17:27

GNS describes kinds of play rather than kinds of roleplaying games. A more useful discussion might be what games tend to produce particular gamist, narrativist, or simulationist play.

The most gamist game that comes to mind—it could be argued it's a diplomacy game—is Nomic.

Nomic is a game in which changing the rules is a move. In that respect it differs from almost every other game. The primary activity of Nomic is proposing changes in the rules, debating the wisdom of changing them in that way, voting on the changes, deciding what can and cannot be done afterwards, and doing it. Even this core of the game, of course, can be changed.

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Twilight: 2000 has already been mentioned, but it's worth going into in more detail. The game was created by veteran wargame designer Frank Chadwick of GDW. In fact, in its early years GDW was known primarily for Chadwick's highly detailed wargames.

The Guide to Twilight: 2000 describes the game's genesis:

Initially, Frank Chadwick’s design concepts envisioned extreme environments with features of Mel Gibson's Mad Max and Andre Norton's Star Man's Son. Unfortunately, such concepts were already common (and not especially successful) to the market place. The breakthrough came on a long drive back from the Origins Game Convention (Dallas, 1983). In an overloaded rental van, Frank Chadwick, Loren Wiseman, Bill Keith, and Andrew Keith talked for hours about a modern military role-playing game which concentrated on equipment and realistic military situations, and by the end of the trip the concept for Twilight: 2000 was far enough along for specific design to begin in earnest.

The game and its supplements detail a world sputtering to a halt after a (mostly) conventional war swept the globe. While it's easy to find elements of this alternate history that don't seem realistic, a great deal of effort was made to present an internally cohesive and consistent game world. Combat in T2K is lethal, and the mechanics emphasize the fact that much of real combat is spent hesitating. Characters spend a lot of time scrounging for food and fuel. The most dangerous opponents are the ones that can effectively marshal followers and resources, rather than action movie combat masters.

T2K does not attempt to balance the odds. If a PC group riding around in a barely-functioning BRDM stumbles across a band of bandits equipped with M2 Bradleys, they will know fighting isn't an option, and if their players don't act accordingly, they'll learn to quickly. Individual advancement and accomplishment is limited as well, and there are no guarantees that a single unlucky shot won't take down even the most dangerous characters.

Player input into the development of the game world, shared management of narrative flow, and other metagame concepts used in narrativist play are simply non-existent in T2K.

Aftermath! which appeared even earlier than T2K, is often mentioned as an example of a game that supports simulationist gaming quite well, and for good reason. The game attempts to model the gritty feel of works like Lucifer's Hammer, and the mechanics are notoriously crunchy. For example, the encumbrance per location for Mesh Macroplast armor is .036; .22 Jet ammunition has a Bullet Damage Group of 4 when fired from a pistol, and 8 when fired from a rifle.

But crunch != simulation. Aftermath! has no default setting, and its scope is broader, encompassing everything from alien invasion to mutant-infested nuclear wastelands to more believable settings. I ran multiple Aftermath! campaigns and one long T2K campaign and my feeling is that while both are very strongly oriented toward simulationist play, T2K is narrower and deeper. The setting has a quite specific feel, and the rules relentlessly reinforce the internal logic of the setting.

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I'd vote for Timelords - the author (Greg Porter) allegedly made extensive research using FBI documents, scientific papers and so on to get real numbers on everything, including "maximum jumping distance" and "average damage from .45 bullets".

Later he further distilled everything in a more streamlined system (CORPS) which was still strongly rooted in "reality", but more playable.

(Disclaimer: I own CORPS, and EABA, but I never read Timelords, but I am basing my opinion on reviews and interviews with Porter).

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Rolemaster would fit into the Simulationist end of the spectrum. MERP does fit the description of Simulationist and of course, uses either a cut-down version of Rolemaster or the full Rolemaster rules. Most of the MERP modules (and most of the Rolemaster ones) are descriptions of fauna and flora, locations, and people. Adventures are just one-paragraph long "seeds". Whether or not they mimic Tolkien's view of the world is open to debate.

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Rolemaster is the first word that comes to my mind when I read "Simulationist". –  Flamma Dec 11 '13 at 22:29

I believe the Simulationist point of view was created in part to describe GURPS. Whereas games like D&D design weapon damage is assigned by what makes the most fun and interesting game, in GURPS weapon damage is based on what real world damage a weapon does (Guns damage is based on a formula based on calibre and joules of energy, for example).

Here are some details on the simulationsist point of view, and why it was created. I don't agree with a lot of stuff on Whitehall Paraindustries, and he is certainly far from unbiased, but it does describe the timeline of the creation of the simulationsist term.

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There's two things that are important to realize in talking about Simulationism.

First, Simulationism can be simulating a genre, a type of story, or in simulating a fantastical setting -realism is not required. Simulationism is concerned with fidelity to a setting, a genre, reality, or just immersion.

In this regard, most Lord of the Rings games are aimed at simulating LOTR stories/setting. Hong Kong Action Theater is aimed at simulating... Hong Kong Action movies, etc. Simulationism is aimed at making sure the imaginary events stay within certain expectations or boundaries above all else.

Second, mechanics and systems can support a type of play, but a group can always selectively use the rules, or enforce them in order to create a different kind of Creative Agenda. Just as much as a race car, a family van and an 18 wheeled truck all are "automobiles" and you COULD race any of them, only the race car is really going to be good at it. That said, rules CAN be geared towards doing just one thing.

With that in mind, most rpgs out there are strongly simulationist, with usually a branch of gamist supporting mechanics stuck in. AD&D2E, a lot of D20 material, World of Darkness, Legend of the Five Rings, Deadlands, Star Wars, FATE games, etc., etc.

The easiest way to look at it is this:

  1. Is there a way to "win" the game? Is there a set field/expected arena of conflict that the players will need to show mastery and expertise in to win this game?
  2. Is the focus on the personal choices and emotional transformation of the player characters?

If the answer to both of those is no, you're looking at a simulationist game.

Further reading: The Big Model and how the parts interlock.

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For all the work that Ron Edwards put into GNS Theory to describe modes of play, it is useless in practice. Namely because of the fact that one important aspect of RPGs is that they are about characters interacting with a setting using a game. What "mode" the player is in will depend on what goals they are producing and sometimes all three are going on at once.

For example in the Harnmaster session Sevensided Dice linked to. All three aspect of GNS occured at one point or another.

There was the narrative of the mage character coming home to his village. Later there was the narrative of explored a dark cave which played out more like a session of horror like Call of Cthulu than straightup fantasy.

Of course there was simulation of medieval life that Seven Sided dice pointed out.

Finally during the cave encounter the mage character looked over the rule book to figure out the best tactical option to deal with the Vlasta.

So in the course of one session we has some simulation, some narrative, and some gaming going on. And this is true of most RPGs.

What more useful is to know what details are presented by a particular RPG and at what level of abstraction. For example B/X Combat is more abstract than GURPS or Harnmaster. The same for the level character detail. Some system have a lot of character detail but still retain abstract combat. Or minimal character detail but have detailed combat like The Fantasy Trip. In my thirty years of experience, what works for an individual groups depends on their interest and preferences.

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