On narrativism vs simulationism, and the consequences for D&D Next

In the past few days, some discussions roared on the boards about reflavoring, flavor and mechanics and similar questions. I have seen in the discussion many points in common with all the fundamental divides of the edition warring, and in the following article I will give an explanation of the issue (by my point of view) and some thoughts about the solutions.

First, a disclaimer: I am a narrativist at heart, and I will probably be unable to give the simulationists' part of the problem the fairest of shares. However, I will try to be as unbiased as possible and present both sides of the problem, and if you want to help me round the most rough parts, please feel free to correct me in the comments below.


WHAT ARE NARRATIVISM AND SIMULATIONISM
I use narrativism and simulationism as two names to indicate the two principal ways to run a roleplaying game. There are other ways, I'm sure, but these two are probably the most important ones. It should be clear that nobody is a perfect simulationist nor a perfect narrativist: all narrativists agree that a certain degree of simulationism is required and all simulationists agree that a certain degree of narrativism is accepted. However, in every important and meaningful debate at the two opposite sides of the argument you will find simulationists and narrativists.

Narrativists are those who play a roleplaying game to tell a story about a group of protagonists.
Narrativists are those who think the gaming system is a tool to narrate a better story. They are those who think the rules should do their job and get out of the way. They often don't like realism, as it has little place in the narration of a fantasy tale. They love to have the ability to tell the story they like best, with mechanics supporting conflict resolution and definitely not flavor. They like being able to reflavor a class, a spell, a power, a monster to something else, as they see fit.
They believe rules should get out of the way of the story. They often don't like meaningless character death, as it impairs their ability to create a coherent and cooperative story. They think the Dungeon Master's role is first and foremost to "say yes", allowing his players to be free to create the most wonderful of stories. They do not like to force or exclude characters concepts, they like to be able to run their world freely and without many rules or game assumptions.
They believe game balance is important, as everybody should be able to contribute equally to the story being narrated. They hate to see some capacity (be it healing, out of combat spells, in combat effectiveness, social ability or whatever) to be exclusive to certain classes or character concepts, and like to run a game where everybody is able to participate in every situation. They often (but not always) do not like Vancian casting as it has many issues that limit this ability for either non-Vancian classes, or Vancian classes, depending on the balance.

Simulationists are those who play a roleplaying game to tell a story about a group of characters.
As you can see, the definition is almost the same, yet so much depends on that lone word. By being a story about characters, and not protagonists, the expected world is not centered on the players: it has a history, a setting, rules and laws that are not bound to the players. They exist on their own, creating a wonderful and coherent gaming world that the characters (being characters of that world) can live in.
Simulationists are those who think the gaming system is the expression of the fantasy world they are playing in. They are those who think the rules should be thought in a way that represents the flavor of the gaming world. They do not care (or at least not particularly) about balance, as that is secondary to giving rules that represent the game world. They think the first aspect of a gaming system is its internal consistence, its sense of realism, its flavor. They love to have a system that represents, with its rules, the exact capacities and abilities of their character. They hate reflavoring, as that is stripping the rules from their flavor and renders the flavor itself meaningless; it creates a dissonance, a separation of the mechanics and flavor.
They resent a gamist approach to the health system, preferring a grittier and more consistent approach. They hate martial healing, as it is a clear disconnection of hit points from actual health. They believe the job of the Dungeon Master is to "say no": no you can't just do whatever you want in the game, you need to abide to the rules and make checks, no you can't just ignore the flavor, if you are a paladin you are a paladin and if you are casting a magic missle you can't be casting a meteor swarm instead. They hate to see character concepts that do not mix well with the expected reality of the gaming world. They love to see classes that do what you would expect them to do, even if it means giving up a bit of balance in the process. Realism trumps balance, coherence inside the system trumps the gamist need to have equal plot power in all situations. They often believe Vancian casting is very flavorful, traditional, and an essential part of D&D.


WHY THE DISPARITY? WHO IS RIGHT?
Nobody is "right", and the disparity is created by the difference in play style. What one group loves is bad to the next, and vice versa. This is a profund disparity that is, unfortunately (or fortunately?), unavoidable: we are different people and we like different things. There is no one correct way to play, and there is no wrong way to play. I have my preferences, and so do you, and you wouldn't nor shouldn't let anyone tell you that you are wrong for those. You may be puzzled by others' preferences yourself - I know I certainly am sometimes - but that's not a good reason to think those people are wrong. They are right, in their way. Of course, I would never play with a simulationist, and a simulationist would never play with me. But that's fine: neither would have fun if we did.


SO WHAT'S THE CATCH?
The catch is, each of the two groups wants different things from their gaming system. Each of the two groups have different opinions on what makes a system better than another. If you read the above paragraphs, some things will surely ring a bell: Vancian casting, Health system, DM empowerment, reflavoring, class design, balance... Those are the most heated debates, and rightfully so. They are the debates that represent this fundamental disparity of expectations from the gaming system.
Edition wars, at their fundamental level, are based on this disparity. When people argue about what they expect in D&D Next, they argue about whether or not it will be or support a more simulationist or narrativist gameplay. They fear the choice might fall on the opposite side of the argument, they fear that their preferred gamestyle won't be supported, and they fear that a good opportunity for improvement will be wasted for nothing. It's natural. I fear that too.
It is also completely impossible to have the same game support both game styles. You can probably figure out why: they are polar opposites. You can't possibly imagine a system that supports both to a decent level, at least not any complicate system like D&D is supposed to be (although I'm pretty sure you can run a freeform for both sides).


NOT EVERYTHING IS LOST
I have the firm belief that an edition of D&D that supports both styles is possible. I don't know whether D&D Next will do that, but I believe it is possible. The bad news is, it will be two different games under the same banner.
You can't possibly expect the same system to support both sides, of course, but that's not necessary. You can have two different systems keyed off the same basic concepts and Core mechanics. The Core mechanics they showed us about D&D Next are solid and supposedly well rounded: they work for both sides equally well. They just lack any meaningful contribution to either side of the argument.
If you want to really have an edition for every group, an edition that can work for both narrativists and simulationists, you will need to produce a double game. Now, modularity in and of itself has its issues, but it is not necessarily bad if it produces a better game for us both. We just need to accept that there will be options that you don't like, and those will be the options other people love. You need to accept that there will be a part of the system that is cut for someone else entirely. If you in turn have a better system than any you ever had before, I'm pretty sure you won't mind. At least I know I wouldn't.
If you want to help create a D&D Next that is for everybody, truly for everybody, you need to make sure this becomes true. Truth is, if we end up having only one system it will probably not be entirely the way you like it. The few lucky fellas that will have their perfect system might be the other ones. You can count on WotC to provide you your perfect system, sure. But what if WotC doesn't? What if they present you a system that has parts of what you like and parts of what you don't like?
We have a chance, now more than ever, to make sure the final product satisfies everyone. If you try to press your opinion over that of others, you may end up destroying that opportunity and having a system that is not like what you want. We need to grow out of the useless edition warring, embrace the diversity that we have, and face together this new edition, not to "have it our way", but to make sure we all have a better product.

How can you do that? It's simple. Whenever you encounter a situation in which you notice a divide, a fundamental one, based on preferences, rather than trying to make a point and prove that your way of doing things is correct, or showcasing why your way of doing things is better, be productive and try to envision a solution for the other side of the argument. Try to offer a way to satisfy both you and the other side, offer a possible solution for their side, explain what are the essential needs that your side of the argument has and what needs to be done in a rulebook to cover them. If the others do the same, maybe we can reach an agreement, and a better understanding of each other. If on the other hand we keep fighting like we're enemies instead of fellow gamers, we will end up with a product that doesn't satisfy neither of us.

Be productive. Try to offer a solution to the other side. If you can't find a middle ground, find a way to split the two ideas into different modules. Find out what needs to be in the core both parts share in order for the modular options to work. Be positive.
Blog Followers 13 Comments 18

Comments