Narrative Vs Simulationist Systems & How To Run Them.

There are many ways to differentiate between and to group the many tabletop RPG systems out there. Often, this is done by genre (Epic Fantasy, Cyberpunk, Urban Fantasy, etc.) or by the origins of the system, whether mechanically or inspirationally  (OSR, OGL, Tolkienian). One way of grouping systems is according to an important, underlying aspect which shapes the whole experience : is the game Narrative or Simulationist?

Simulationist systems attempt to create a framework for a world; a way of representing that reality, with which the GM and players can tell stories and have adventures. Simulationist systems are pretty clear on what is what, with the GM only needing to interpret and elaborate on the specifics.

Narrative systems attempt to provide a framework for a story, through which the GM and players can build and progress a world.  Narrative systems require more interpretation, since the numbers reflect an ability to influence the story rather than the world itself. Where a simulationist Strength score is usually an absolute value, representing the character’s muscle power, a Narrative one is often more amorphous and represents their ability to perform Feats-of-strength as the story requires.

We will refer, in this discussion to the AXETM and obSESSIONTM (hereafter termed obY) systems, not because I am arrogant enough to think that anyone reading this will know those systems but because I know them very well (I should do, I wrote them). Both are dice pool based systems, both versatile, but obY is a Simulationist system where AXE is a Narrative one.

Eg. AXE and obY present the same situation, an Ogre trying to knock down a human PC. The PC is not in a position to dodge and so must brace themselves and resist using Strength.

In obY the Ogre is much stronger and has six dice to the PC’s four. The GM may also choose to give it a bonus due to it’s greater Mass (more likely it’s Size Attribute, which also encompasses it’s leverage).

In AXE the PC and Ogre have similar Strengths and the player has more dice to roll (a larger Pool to roll dice from in each round) but the Ogre has a bonus from it’s Size Trait.

In both games, a lucky PC can readily win, leaving the GM to interpret the result.

A lazy, unimaginative or inexperienced GM (or one who is under pressure or simply keen to move on to the next Action) may simply say “As the Ogre shoves you, you brace yourself and shove back. Unprepared for such resistance, it fails to knock you down“, or even just “The Ogre fails.” A GM who is in tune with the system  they are running, however, can do always better.

The simulationist GM, running obY, might say “The Ogre lunges forward to shove you but it is slow, giving you ample time to brace. As you stand firm, your superior footing wins the day and the beast, rather than knocking you down, pushes itself backwards with a flex of those mighty arms.” This response explanis the mechanics of what has happened – the PC’s footing is more secure and he hasn’t “out muscled” the larger creature but has turned it’s own power back on it.

The Narrative GM, running AXE and more concerned with drama than mechanics, might say “The Ogre lunges toward you and you surge forward in response, the two of you meeting in a huge collision! Though you bounce off the creature’s massive frame, you land adroitly on your feet, back where you started from.” This response has a mind on visualisation and cinematic action, focussing on the appearance of things rather than the mechanics of how it actually happened.

Both responses, you will note, avoid claiming that the smaller, weaker PC has somehow beaten the Ogre in contest of raw strength, that’s a subject for a future BlOG post but worth mentioning briefly anyway. Either response is perfectly acceptable in any game but each plays to the strengths of the system. A simulationist GM is likely to have simulationist players for whom the mechanical interaction between human and Ogre will enhance their immersion in the game; for them, the story forms naturally from the events as they happen, with no need for narrative enhancement (though such enhancement will help, whether they admit or not). Narrative players may not care for the mechanics, either of physics or the game system, so long as they grasp the flow of action and of the story (though the details actually will aid in them in visualising the action).

There is a 4th technique which, while as old as gaming, has been popularised in recent years by a certain celebrity GM. This involves getting the player to describe the result of their action (though with the GM reserving the right to veto or edit for appropriateness). This is most commonly done for the killing blow in a combat, a dramatic situation deemed worthy of granting the player their moment of glory, but this is,  ironically, the time when I would be least likely to use it. As a GM, I prefer to trust to my own storytelling skills for combat, a situation in which a small detail might swing the course of the action (yes, I am a simulationist at heart) but enjoy allowing the players to describe the course of less pivotal actions. Did that PC just fail to climb a wall? Maybe you should see if the player has an amusing but reasonable way of describing their failure before imposing one of your own.

A good GM will not tie themselves slavishly to one of these techniques, but will borrow whatever seems best for a given situation; the best GMs will blend all four techniques seamlessly, responding to each situation, even each player, with whatever seems most appropriate.

We have looked at an overview of what is meant by Narrative or Simulationist gaming and, hopefully, given you an idea of why both styles form a part of every game, whatever style you think you’re playing. In a future post, I shall cover each style in more detail (taking the Simulationist approach) and try to get an feel for how it plays (its Narrative, if you will). If you want to know anything specific, hit me up on Twitter (@hintfishy) or on the FOGOnline Discord and I’ll try to answer.