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When I GM a game, I try to make sure that the skills the characters have can be used. If someone takes "Music", then I make sure there's a point in the campaign where someone needs to impress someone with their mad playing skills. Likewise, if a character has a low Charisma, I try to make sure that at some point, they have to be the diplomat.

However, I've known GMs that are simulationists -- "the world exists independent of the characters, so it should be built independently of the characters."

What advantages and disadvantages are there between the two different styles? What pitfalls do you run into when using a specific style?

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Polls and surveys generally get closed. Can you think of some more concrete question to make this about? Perhaps something like "What are the advantages of simulationist campaigns?" That at least might attract a "best" answer of some kind. – SevenSidedDie Jun 2 '11 at 17:34
Done -- thanks. – bryanjonker Jun 2 '11 at 17:45
up vote 5 down vote accepted

There are two contexts in which you can ask and answer this question - the strategic and the tactical.


Adapting a campaign somewhat at the high level to your players is generally considered good form. At the point before play starts, you always have a lot of work to define what will be in the world and go on. The argument "the world is fixed" is not legitimate at this point, because no RPG world product I have ever bought actually describes every person and event in the world. If one player has diplomatic skills, putting in a merchant for him to negotiate with is not "breaking" the world. If a player makes an "undead killer" character, and your world has undead, and you never bring any across his path, he'll be sad and you'll be a dick. The GM is the motive force in the world and in the end it's an arbitrary decision on your part whether the zombies in the graveyard are feeling frisky or not, so appealing to the objective world if you say they're not is inappropriate.

Furthermore, world building is almost always an exercise in horizon planning. You don't build the entire thing down to the detail to which the PCs will interact with it at start, you end up detailing new villes or whatever as you go. Unless you have the world's most complete random generation table, you are making decisions as to what goes in there, and how that stuff will interact with your players is an important factor in everyone's fun.

This can, however, be taken too far in terms of catering to the players. In all games except the most simplistic, a character with diplomatic skills can exercise them by wandering up to someone and, you know, talking to them. When GMs design TOO much around the characters, it "blunts their edge" - they become passive, and instead of looking for people to talk to or going around and looking for undead-haunted crypts to loot, they just kick back and expect you to line up "appropriate challenges" for them like tenpins. There's a reason why people that get good at other games enjoy those games more - the practice isn't always fun in and of itself but the play experience becomes so. Whenever my daughter starts a new sport she hates it until she starts to get good at it and then she likes it. Letting players not try undermines the fun long term. It forces interesting choices on them - "Do I use a longsword, which I'm good at, or this magical axe, which I'm not as good at?" It can force them outside their comfort zone.

A lot of it has to do with what your players like and what kind of story you want to tell with a given campaign. In one campaign, the GM had all the players be growing into avatars of the gods, so naturally a lot of the game world revolved around the PCs - but not at a metagame level, at a quite-reasonably-in-game level.


Some GMs will adapt the game while in play to play to (or against!) a character's strengths. I remember fondly one very realistic campaign I played in. The GM would, for example, detail out a bad guy's manor house, and we would plan a careful intrusion, because we were thieves. If we chose the passageway without the guard, he would not "move the guard" so that we'd come across him anyway. This rewarded our investment in the game world and in planning. I generally did not play thieves, because most GMs I had played under would do that - therefore your cleverness was without real merit; if the adventure said "you have to fight the guard to get in" then you had to fight the guard to get in. I found that terribly demotivating. One can argue that it preserves GM prep work, as in "they spent a lot of time on that guard so it's a shame to not use them," or that "the challenge won't be complete if you don't have a fight," but both of those are pretty transparently nonvaluable.

This level of "adaptation" is the one usually perceived by players as cheating/fudging/railroading/contrived, whether the GM thinks it's 'for' or 'against' them. "Oh, they don't have a lot of spells left, this guy will take it easy on them." "That darn PC with his bow attack, I'll give every batch of bad guys some ranged defense thing." This can be good if you value a standardized challenge for every encounter, or if you really want the story to go a specific way regardless of the will of the characters, but I find that in general players don't value those things.

My Personal Mix

I have a larger world that "exists independent" of the PCs. I make a campaign plot that takes them into account in a large-scale sense. When I plan a specific session, I look to have things show up/happen that should be relevant to characters, maintaining a mix of tailored/random/absolute genesis. Then when I start the session, it's 100% simulation till the session is over with. It provides the right amount of each of the good things to keep players coming back consistently for 20 years without falling victim to too much of the bad things.

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+1 You said what I actually wanted to say. Thank you. – Adriano Varoli Piazza Jun 3 '11 at 13:11

"the world exists independent of the characters, so it should be built independently of the characters."

My world is full of stuff. If the players go in a direction, I'm going to put content there. I can safely assume that a character who is a musician is interested in music and will be drawn into a musical plot if one presents itself. I will therefore present a plot that appeals to a musician in the hope that that character finds it interesting. I don't see how this detracts from the world, unless I'm running a 2112 inspired game and there's exactly one guitar in the entire universe.

Where tailoring the game to the players does break simulation is when there are too many coincidences that could only ever fit this set of PCs. If the PCs find themselves in a dungeon with a vault that can only be unlocked by transposing a song into G major and playing it on the harp they found in the previous dungeon, well that's just a little unbelievable.

So in summary, use hooks that appeal to your PCs but don't come up with situations that treat the PCs like puzzle pieces.

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"If the PCs find themselves in a dungeon with a vault that can only be unlocked by transposing a song into G major and playing it on the harp they found in the previous dungeon, well that's just a little unbelievable." Nah. That's Legend of Zelda. – Adriano Varoli Piazza Jun 2 '11 at 19:15
@Adriano Zelda is a good example of a world that revolves strictly around the PC(s). – SevenSidedDie Jun 2 '11 at 19:37

There are many advantages and disadvantages to each style, but for me it comes down to one thing: discovery.

That is, how surprised do you want to be by your games?

In a game not tailored to the characters, you essentially present the players with obstacles without making narrow assumptions about how they might solve them--or even if they might solve them. In my opinion, this encourages a lot more discovery: the players brainstorm interesting solutions, the DM gets to be surprised more often by the players, and everyone at the table discovers the parameters of success and failure.

In a game tailored to the characters, you essentially ask the players "let's see if you can overcome this obstacle using X", where X is a strength or weakness. They might succeed, they might fail, but everyone knows the form the contest will take.

I'd go a step further and say that the tailored game also encourages the GM to create problems that are close to the edge of the players' abilities to solve (with the resources available to them--typically their characters). This also tends to encourage pretty clear stakes, with challenging obstacles for higher stakes.

In a so-called simulationist game, the obstacles don't necessarily correspond to the stakes or rewards, and because the approaches are up to the players', the consequences for success or failure can vary almost as widely as the solution.

That's not to say that both approaches don't have a lot in common. Both types of games tend to present challenges that are within the realm of possibility for the players (either now or after improving their chances somehow), and both types of games tend to fall flat if the obstacles are too hard or too easy.

Likewise, games being games, GMs still tend to have a good idea of how various problems might be solved--the difference tends to be in how important it is to the success of the game that the GM be able to predict solutions. In a so-called tailored game, being able to predict solutions tends to be quite important, in order to present challenges that satisfy player preferences (ie I made a character with the Music skill, so I want to use it). In a so-called simulationist game, the solutions aren't the GMs responsibility, so prediction isn't terribly important to the success of the game.

My personal preference is for the so-called simulationist approach: the players get to make decisions based on a predictable world, their victories seem much more deserved (as do their defeats!), and everyone gets to be surprised by the game--not just the players.

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A simulationist universe that doesn't care for the players is more real, but it is also more boring. After all, if "the world exists independent of the characters, so it should be built independently of the characters", the action could be happening on another continent, and the characters might not even know, or get there too late.

We also assign treasure more or less matching what the players want, or at least can use. There's little point in leaving giant boots of +5 speed if nobody is a giant in the party. In the same way, campaigns usually assume a certain quantity of players, because otherwise fights are either too easy, and boring, or too deadly, and frustrating.

Frankly, I agree with your opinion: Building an adventure around your character's strengths and weaknesses makes the characters shine, and makes the defeats personal, and that's good. The key is, I guess, not overdoing it. Too many shines and the characters might veer into Mary Sues, always perfect beacons of victory. Too many botched diplomacy checks and the player might start looking for a new build.

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