A Manifesto: In Defense of Simulationism
(And a Plug for my Superhero Simulation Ascendant)
Recently my superhero RPG Ascendant became a momentary topic of debate on the Traditional Games channel of the ur-forum 4chan. Among the comments and critiques about my game, this witticism stood out: “The impression is that a literal autist designed this game for people who can’t pull a hand-wave.”
Now, I’m not an autist… but I come from a tradition of game design that’s often been criticized like that. Because what I am is a Simulationist. And, although Simulationism has always been widely respected in tabletop wargames and videogames, many tabletop RPG gamers today are ignorant or contemptuous of the merits of the approach.
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Ascendant, for instance, was ridiculed in one early review for including rules for parasitic infections. But why is that ridiculous? AD&D had rules for parasitic infections, too, and it was avowedly not a simulation. Indeed, Gary Gygax was among the earliest and fiercest critics of Simulationism. Gygax’s Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979) remains the definitive work of Gygaxian RPG theory, and in the very first paragraph after the Introduction, Gygax writes:
After dismissing Simulationism as “an absurd effort considering the topic,” Gygax then proceeds to offer us this introduction to probability theory:
By page 12, Gygax has finished his discussion of probability theory and begun to offer game mechanics. And the first new game mechanic he offers is this:
And the next game mechanic Gygax offers us is this:
If these aren’t simulations, what are they? Don’t answer, it’s a rhetorical question. These are, obviously, simulations — of the aging process and of the infection process, respectively. And these are just the first few of countless subsystems found throughout Advanced Dungeons & Dragons that simulate, well, everything. The subsystems found in AD&D are as intricate and detailed as any I’ve created in Ascendant, and I am avowed Simulationist.
What are we to make of this? Was Gygax a closet Simulationist? His friend Flint Dille certainly thinks so. Flint, a Facebook acquaintance of mine, has said that Gary was first and foremost an actuary, and that AD&D can only be understood as an actuarial model of a fantasy world, e.g. a simulation.
So why not just say so?
Well, at the time that Gary wrote, Dungeons & Dragons had caused a rift in the previously coherent wargames culture. By introducing “silly elf games” into what had been a rather serious and historically-minded hobby, Gygax had brought in countless new players, not all of them respectably familiar with the shape of 15th century pole arms. We’ve forgotten today, but TSR in its day was derided for destroying wargame culture. Gygax’s reason for including fantastical elements such as elves, dragons, and wizards in Chainmail, and later in AD&D, is that it was more fun than not having them — which meant that to defend his game from critiques by wargamers, he had to deprioritize simulation. That, at least, is my belief.
Whether that’s true or not, Gygax’s condemnation of Simulationism set the tone for discussion of simulation for years to come. Perhaps the most robust arguments about RPG Simulationism to ever take place occurred from May 1996 to July 1999 on the Usenet group rec.games.frp.advocacy. That brief but fruitful era saw the introduction of two theories that eventually came to dominate RPG design philosophy.
The first theory was called the threefold model and it was created by Mary Kuhner in 1997 and thereafter popularized by John H. Kim. According to the threefold model, there are three styles of playing RPGs: dramatist, gamist, and simulationist. Kim explains the three styles as follows:
"dramatist": is the style which values how well the in-game action creates a satisfying storyline. Different kinds of stories may be viewed as satisfying, depending on individual tastes, varying from fanciful pulp action to believable character drama. It is the end result of the story which is important.
"gamist": is the style which values setting up a fair challenge for the players (as opposed to the PCs). The challenges may be tactical combat, intellectual mysteries, politics, or anything else. The players will try to solve the problems they are presented with, and in turn the GM will make these challenges solvable if they act intelligently within the contract.
"simulationist": is the style which values resolving in-game events based solely on game-world considerations, without allowing any meta-game concerns to affect the decision. Thus, a fully simulationist GM will not fudge results to save PCs or to save her plot, or even change facts unknown to the players. Such a GM may use meta-game considerations to decide meta-game issues like who is playing which character, whether to play out a conversation word for word, and so forth, but she will resolve actual in-game events based on what would "really" happen.
The threefold model was created by self-identified Simulationists and the definition Simulationist that it endorses is, not surprisingly, one that I could ascribe to myself. Others have been less kind to the threefold model. My friend Brian Gleichman has written extensively on it from a gamist perspective. According to Gleichman, the threefold model has the wrong definition of gamism. He offers an alternative:
"gamist" is the style which values the application of objective player skill in order to resolve situations defined as important to the group. These situations may be based upon combat, mysteries, puzzles or anything else where skilled play may make a difference in outcome although that difference doesn't always need to be as simple as obvious victory/defeat.
The difference between John Kim’s original threefold definition of gamism and Brian Gleichman’s definition of gamism is, more-or-less, the difference between what Retired Adventurer called the “Classic” and “OSR” cultures in his influential 2021 essay Six Cultures of Play. According to Retired Adventurer,
Classic play is oriented around the linked progressive development of challenges and PC power, with the rules existing to help keep those in rough proportion to one another and adjudicate the interactions of the two "fairly". This is explicit in the AD&D 1e DMG's advice to dungeon masters…the focus of play is coping with challenges and threats that smoothly escalate in scope and power as the PCs rise in level. The idea of longer campaigns with slow but steady progression in PC power interrupted only by the occasional death is a game play ideal for classic culture…
An important note I will make here is to distinguish the progressive challenge-based play of the "classic" culture from the more variable challenge-based play of the OSR. The OSR mostly doesn't care about "fairness" in the context of "game balance" (Gygax did)… The goal is a game where PC decision-making, especially diegetic decision-making, is the driver of play.
Although he doesn’t draw the parallel himself, it is clear that RA’s Classic culture is exactly what Kim called Gamist style, while RA’s OSR style is identical to Gleichman’s Gamist style. The key point here is that neither one is Simulationist. In fact, none of the six cultures of play that Retired Adventurer describes incorporates simulationism, as the threefold model defined it. Why is that?
The fault must lie with Ron Edwards, whose GNS model cast Simulationism into disrepute and sent tabletop RPG design into an entirely new direction. According to Edwards:
Three player aims or outlooks have been suggested, in that a given player approaches a role-playing situation pretty much from one of them, with some, but not much, crossover possible.
Gamist. This player is satisfied if the system includes a contest which he or she has a chance to win. Usually this means the character vs. NPC opponents, but Gamists also include the System Breaker and the dominator-type roleplayer. RPGs well suited to Gamists include Rifts and Shadowrun.
Narrativist. This player is satisfied if a roleplaying session results in a good story. RPGs for Narrativists include Over the Edge, Prince Valiant, The Whispering Vault, and Everway.
Simulationist. This player is satisfied if the system "creates" a little pocket universe without fudging. Simulationists include the well-known subtype of the Realist. Good games for Simulationists include GURPS and Pendragon.
To a first approximation, Edwards’ GNS model seems quite similar to the threefold model (which soon became called the GDS model to differentiate it). However, the similarity was merely superficial. The original threefold model was merely descriptive. Edwards’ theory was prescriptive:
One of the biggest problems I observe in RPG systems is that they often try to satisfy all three outlooks at once. The result, sadly, is a guarantee that almost any player will be irritated by some aspect of the system during play…
RPG system design cannot meet all three outlooks at once… I suggest that building the system specifically to accord with one of these outlooks is the first priority of RPG design.
Now, this is an altogether remarkable claim. Edwards is asserting that the desire for a good story, a good game, and a good simulation are utterly incompatible — so incompatible that any game that tries is (in his words) “incoherent”. He adds:
…A good system is one which knows its outlook and doesn't waste any mechanics on the other two outlooks. Its resolution method(s) are appropriate for the outlook…
Perhaps the ongoing debate about "system-light" vs. "system-heavy" is a waste of time… The degree of acceptable complexity comes from the game's outlook, and should be judged in that context only. A Simulationist, Fortune-based game almost has to be complex, but a Narrativist, Karma-based game is most satisfying with a simpler system.
So, according to Edwards, there are three possible styles of play (Gamist, Narrativist, and Simulationist); only one type of play is possible in any given game; and the first priority of RPG design is to pick a type and build a system that reflects it and only it.
Now, on its face, there was nothing about GNS that initially seemed to be antithetical to Simulationism; it even included simulation as one of the three styles of play. But Edwards was (to quote himself) “a hard-core Narrativist” and as he elaborated GNS theory further, he became an avowed enemy of simulationist play. In April 2001, on his site The Forge, he wrote:
Simulationism is NOT an actual outlook or goal, unlike Narrativism or Gamism. Nor is it a "design dial," as many have suggested…
No, we think that Simulationism is a form of retreat, denial, and defense against the responsibilities of either Gamism or Narrativism. These two outlooks acknowledge, even require Author stance, and they acknowledge the potential of personal failure in role-playing. The Gamist can lose. The Narrativist can look on the results and say, "That story stunk, and it was my fault."…
Simulationism consists entirely of a retreat from these dangers.
I’m not cherry picking — Edwards goes on and on about how terrible Simulationists are. The full thread has to be read to be believed. By 2004, Edwards had gone further and condemned everyone who enjoyed simulationist RPGs as “brain damaged.” As Brian Gleichman wryly states, “Not only are the Simulationists in denial, they are in denial because they can't handle the glory of Narrativist play… If you don't play Forge approved Narrativist games instead of 'those other' games, you're going to end up brain damaged.”
Unfortunately for Simulationists like me, Edward’s GNS model became the predominant theory of RPG design. The entire subculture of indie RPG design today is an outgrowth of Ron Edwards and The Forge. Edwards’ many epigones design and play games like Burning Wheel, FATE, Apocalypse World, and countless other Narrativist RPGs. They remain explicitly averse to simulationism. Indeed, as the quote that opened this article reminds us, they are still quick to consider anyone who enjoys another type of game as cognitively abnormal.
Let’s return to Retired Adventurer’s essay to explore how strong a foothold Narrativism has over gaming culture. RA defines the fourth culture of gaming as “story games,” and explicitly ties it back to Ron Edwards:
Story Games… Most people who dislike them call them stuff like "Forge games" or "post-Forge indies" after the Forge indie RPG forums. "Indie RPGs" was a term for these at one point as well… For the past decade, the big cluster of story game design has tended to orient itself around "Powered by the Apocalypse" games patterned after or building on Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker.
So Story Game culture, as RA positions it, includes explicitly Narrativist games. But two of RA’s other game cultures, Traditional and Neotraditional, are also effectively Narrativist. Traditional Gaming is simply Narrativist style with all authorial power vested in the DM:
Trad holds that the primary goal of a game is to tell an emotionally satisfying narrative, and the DM is the primary creative agent in making that happen - building the world, establishing all the details of the story, playing all the antagonists, and doing so mostly in line with their personal tastes and vision. The PCs can contribute, but their contributions are secondary in value and authority to the DM's. If you ever hear people complain about (or exalt!) games that feel like going through a fantasy novel, that's trad. Trad prizes gaming that produces experiences comparable to other media, like movies, novels, television, myths, etc., and its values often encourage adapting techniques from those media.
Neo-Traditional is similar but with the players in the driver’s seat:
[Neo-Trad] basically agrees with trad that the goal of the game is to tell a story, but it deprioritises the authority of the DM as the creator of that story and elevates the players' roles as contributors and creators. The DM becomes a curator and facilitator who primarily works with material derived from other sources - publishers and players, in practice. [Neo-Trad] culture has a different sense of what a "story" is, one that focuses on player aspirations and interests and their realisation as the best way to produce "fun" for the players.
So, of the six cultures of contemporary gaming, two of them are Gamist (Classical and OSR) and three are Narrativist (Traditional, Story, and Neo-Trad). The sixth culture, Nordic LARP, focuses on experiential immersion in live activities, and lies well outside the domain of GNS theory. (Nordic LARPers have their own theory which is incompatible with Edwards’, but which is quite compatible with the prior GDS theory). None of the six cultures are in any way related to Simulationism. The chart below summarizes the situation, which is dire indeed:
Well, no more. If these cultures reject Simulationism, then I reject them.
We’re Bring Sexy…Er… Simulation Back
Today, I’m announcing the existence of a seventh culture of gaming, the Simulationist culture. The Simulationist culture embraces fans of my two games, Ascendant and Adventurer Conqueror King System, as well as fans of games like Battletech, Car Wars, Dwarf Fortress, GURPS, Rolemaster, Runequest, and countless other games. The official headquarters of our newly-announced Simulationist culture is the Autarch Discord, which you can join by clicking here.
I have already written a full-length book explaining my theory of RPG game design, with an entire chapter devoted to why simulation of a verisimilitudinous world should be the primary focus of tabletop gaming. I won’t repeat that here, since this is already a long essay; but I will elaborate on it in future post. Simulation has been neglected for far too long in our hobby.
If I can achieve one thing as a game designer, my hope is that it will be to help this culture flourish and regain confidence in its play style in the face of those who deride us as “autists” “brain damaged” and “in denial.”
For now I will simply say that if what you want from a role-playing game is a living, breathing, world in motion, one in which the game rules function as the natural laws of the simulated world, and the players are endowed with the agency that only objective mechanics and impartial gamemastering can provide — if that’s what you want in your RPG, then you are part of our culture. Speak friend and enter.
Speaking of Sexy…
If the Simulationist culture I’ve described in this essay appeals to you, I hope you will take a look at my current crowdfunding campaign, Ascendant: Platinum Edition. Ascendant was designed to be a physics-based simulation of a superhero universe with 1990s Image Comics aesthetics (you know what I mean).
Here’s a trailer about the product over at the Arbiter of Worlds YouTube channel:
And here’s what reviewers have had to say about the game:
I grew up in the 80s playing Marvel Super Heroes and Mayfair's DC Heroes and later got into Champions in college. Ascendant manages to take the best of each of those systems and goes far beyond, offering a totally comprehensive supers system that actually makes mathematical sense... Extremely well thought-out, logical, and easy once you "get" the basic mechanic. I really cannot imagine trying to use another system for superheroic gaming after digesting Ascendant. It's just that good. – MATTHEW M.
Ascendant is an excellent supers RPG. The rules are deep and innovative, yet the play is streamlined and simple. The layout and art are very high quality as well... ASCENDANT is obviously a labor of love and it shows in the quality of presentation and contents... The addition of this book to your collection is well worth it. - MURRAY T.
Not only is the action as high and spectacular as any comic book, the actual play is smooth of a system as I’ve ever seen… With half a year to reconsider this review through weeks of playing, I can only say that I’m extremely excited for the future of this game. The community engagement is exceptional, the amount of work done and explanations being written for any questions that come up is fantastic, and gems have been created in the Patreon. The game and its community are amazing and anyone picking it up should also head over to the Discord to get to experience it. -JORDAN M.
Ascendant plays great - it’s fast, smooth, and can handle plenty of characters without getting bogged down in the details... Character design is extremely flexible, and not too difficult to master... When it comes to the design od the PDF, it’s beautiful. The artwork (and there’s a lot of it) is first rate, and the layout is very clean, with everything nicely color-coded as easy to read. Not quite sure how so much information was squeezed into so few pages (I mean, yes it’s 500 pages, but it feels like it should be a lot more), but at any rate, it’s impressive. - MARK C.
- Amazing. Brilliant mechanics. Once you digest the mechanics, it’s wonderful when you realize how everything works together, how everything is interlinked and interconnected with the awesome supermetric system. The supermetric system and its benchmarks make it incredibly easy to process the crunch of the system, so gameplay is smooth and fast. Takes under 10 seconds to determine the difficulty of any task, from the time to investigate a crime scene to throwing a party member at any enemy flying away away to catch them, and you roll against a table, and it’s resolved easily It’s beautiful. Even now I have dozens of possible character ideas that can be easily realized in the system. The best part is how you can connectively transplant it in almost any setting too. It’s incredible. Buy it-you won’t regret it. KARL G.
- Ascendant is the son of Mayfair’s DC Heroes and TSR Marvel, tempered by Autarch’s usual attention to detail and rigorous back-end mathematics_ Once the rules hit the table, this thing flies...It plays fast and furious, the way a comic book inspired game should. Ascendant has dethroned TSR Marvel as my go to choice for superhero gaming, which is not a small feat. If you are in any way interested in supersonic gaming, take a look at it! - JOAO M.D.C.P.
- Build a talking dog who flies, solves crimes and shoots lasers out of his eyes, A+++. - DAVID K.
If that sounds like the game for you, please check it out. And if superheroes just aren’t your genre of choice, don’t worry — I’ve got a fantasy game in the works, Adventurer Conqueror King System II, that will be the finest example of simulationist fantasy game design I can create.
Do You Want to Know More?
Once you’ve finished joining the Discord and backing the new campaign, head over to the links below for ways to get involved in the newly declared Simulationist culture. If you’re a fan, be kind and spread the word!
ACKS Patreon with a new article from our Axioms ezine every month
Ascendant Patreon with a new character and story hook every month
Autarch Facebook page with news and updates about our projects
Autarch Twitter channel with brief comments and witty quirks
Ascendant Comics Facebook page with sneak previews of the upcoming comics
Ascendant Comics Instagram page with tons of art and cosplay
Ascendant Comics Twitter channel with short messages and quirky wit
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If you're going to hand-wave instead of simulate or game the situation out, why are you even playing a game?
If gaming that includes simulation is wrong, I don't ever want to be right. Preach on, brother.