Discover more from Arbiter of Worlds
The Philosophy of Simulationism
And Another Plug for the Superhero Simulation Ascendant!
Last week’s essay, A Manifesto: In Defense of Simulationism, was the most widely-read I’ve written on this Substack. Based on the discussions it triggered on Twitter, The RPG Site, and YouTube, I am far from alone in thinking of myself as a simulationist and wanting more simulation in my tabletop RPG experience.
Some people are, however, not just uninterested in simulation, but actively opposed to it even being possible. For these critics, the notion of simulation is somehow offensive. While I’m long past being surprised at nerd wars on esoteric topics, the vehemence with which simulationism is met in some quarters is still unsettling. If someone says “I don’t like simulation” I have no dispute with them; if someone says “simulation isn’t even possible and you’re brain damaged if you think what you are doing is simulation of anything,” then I do.
Some of friends on Twitter suggested that the reason for the vehement opposition to simulation might be philosophical. It’s worth considering that more closely, because by understanding why some people don’t enjoy simulation, we can better learn why some people do.
Thanks for reading Arbiter of Worlds! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
The Simulationist Presupposition of Nous
Plato famously asserted that our faculties of sense perception could not lead us to truth about the world, only to opinions about it. Truth, he argued, must be apprehended directly through the faculty he called Nous - the ability of the human mind to understand what is real, the ability to make reality intelligible, the ability to perceive the noetic.
In order for Plato to make this epistemological assertion, he had to make two metaphysical commitments. The first is that reality is real. The second is that reality is intelligible as a principle of cosmic order (the latter principle often called the Logos). In Plato’s day, opposition to these commitments largely came from the Sophists, who were close to what we would today call postmodern relativists. Plato was largely successful in his intellectual fight with them, and from his era until the time of the Scholastics, these principles were accepted by most philosophers.
Starting in the early modern era, these two metaphysical commitments were rejected by the likes of Kant, Hume, and others, and when they were discarded, so too was the possibility of any noetic faculty. The implications of this are far too broad for this meager essay, but briefly stated, in today’s philosophical debate, the Sophists have the upper hand to such an extent that it is utterly common to encounter viewpoints such as “truth is just a social construct,” “reality is just a consensus,” and “you can’t really know anything” taken for granted as correct.
Meanwhile, scientists, for whom intelligible reality is a necessary presupposition, blithely continue to operate as if reality were real and intelligible, with the most intelligent scientists sometimes writing perplexed essays about how it doesn’t make sense that things make sense. Usually this is followed by a decision to shut up and calculate.
Obviously, if reality is not real or not intelligible, it cannot be apprehended. And in that case, simulation of reality is impossible — there is no reality to simulate, and even if there were, there’d be no intelligible structure by which to do so. All we can hope to do is create a subjective and phenomenological reality based on our sense experience.
In other words, for a postmodernist, GDS Dramatism and GNS Narrativism is an accurate model of how they experience the world. From a postmodern perspective, what we perceive as reality isn’t real — it’s just a story we tell ourselves. From that postmodern perspective, my assertion that my games are simulations is a metaphysical claim to knowledge they deny I, or anyone, can have. It is epistemological arrogance that deserves to be mocked as self-deluded.
Conversely, if reality is real and intelligible, then simulation of reality is possible, specifically by isomorphic mapping of the structure of reality to the structure of game rules. And doing so is, not an exercise in epistemological hubris, but an exercise in the highest faculty of the human mind. Let's take for granted that this is the case.
Having made that philosophical commitment, let’s call the measure of the simulation’s isomorphism to reality its verisimilitude. We can then assert that the pleasure of participating in a simulation arises from a noetic appreciation of the simulation’s verisimilitude.
Noetic Appreciation of Verisimilitude
Noetic apprehension of verisimilitude is the inverse of willing suspension of disbelief.
When we engage in the willing suspension of disbelief, we put aside what we know to be true in order to better appreciate something fictional.
When we engage in noetic apprehension of verisimilitude, we use what we know to be true in order to better appreciate something fictional.
People differ markedly in their willingness to engage in suspension of disbelief. Almost 20 years ago I wrote an essay for The Escapist, the gaming website I founded, called “It’s All Real to Me.” In that essay, I pointed out:
Too often verisimilitude is dismissed with smug statements like “the fans’ expectations are too high.” The irony is that it’s the other way around. The fans’ expectations are too low. The fans will watch vomit congealing if it’s got the brand they love attached to it. I should know. I was in line for The Phantom Menace on opening day.
Expectations are higher, not lower, among mainstream consumers. Much higher. The reason Joe Superbowl doesn’t like Star Trek or Fantastic Four or Halo isn’t because those settings seem too real. It’s because they don’t seem real enough. For whatever reason, those settings can’t immerse the average consumer enough; they can’t overcome his skepticism; they can’t make Joe Superbowl believe.
It’s a mistake to think that only fantasy or science-fiction that require willing suspension of disbelief. All of us have had the experience of watching a true crime, war, or horse movie with a subject-matter expert who can’t enjoy the film because it’s not realistic. The experience is common that it’s parodied on YouTube, as in this delightful skit “Equestrian Watches Black Beauty.”
But what is far less understood or talked about is the opposite experience: The experience of watching a movie as a subject-matter expert and enjoying the film because it’s so realistic. Look at this video of military historian Roel Konijnendijk discussing the 2004 movie Alexander (starting at 15:38):
For this of you who prefer text to video, what Professor Konijnendijk says is:
This movie had an Oxford professor advising on the movie. You can see all the little details that they got, in terms of their dress, in terms of their tactics and maneuvers. All of this is as good as we can get it, almost. It’s really, really precise… With this movie, all the equipment is just right. These guys, you know these are the Companions. You know, later on, there are going to be some Thracians. You can pinpoint very exactly who they are. The whole pike phalanx is exactly depicted accurately, with all of the weaponry, the spacing between the men, the kind of blocks in which they maneuver… This is our best reconstruction of how this battle happened. In terms of ancient warfare, this is the most accurate depiction that you’ll find anywhere.
The pleasure that Professor Konijnendijk is taking in watching Alexander has nothing to do with the narrative arc of Alexander’s rise and fall (narrativism), or with the acting of Colin Farrell (dramatism), or with his excitement about how the plot might turn out (gamism). The pleasure that Professor Konijnendijk is taking is the noetic appreciation of verisimilitude.
If you don’t know anything about Hellenistic warfare, all of the detail that Professor Robin Lane Fox brought to the movie, that so impressed Professor Konijnendijk, might be lost on you. Does that make them worthless? Not to me. And not to Olive Stone, who spent millions of dollars to get those details right. He knew that for some of his audience, it would matter.
We can eat a meal because we are hungry and need nutrition, but we can also eat a meal because we know it will stimulates our tastebuds in pleasurable ways. Likewise, we can play a tabletop RPG because we want drama or challenge, but we can also play a tabletop RPG because we know it will stimulate our noetic faculty in pleasurable ways. Verisimilitude is a sensation that we experience, and creating that sensory experience can be a design goal in and of itself.
To summarize my position:
A simulationist game is one in which the structure of the rules isomorphically maps to the structure of the reality being simulated to an extent sufficient to create meaningful verisimilitude; and
The pleasure of the game arises (non-exclusively) from the noetic appreciation of the game’s verisimilitude.
Next up we’ll discuss isomorphic mapping, the map-territory relationship, with an eye to explaining why a simulation can be wrong but still be excellent. Until then, if you’re a Simulationist, you can find like-minded people over on the Autarch Discord.
And Now a Word from Our Sponsor
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!
Thanks for reading Arbiter of Worlds! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Come on, philosophers have been arguing about this for over 2,500 years. Did you really think I was going to prove the existence of Nous on my RPG blog? That’s the sort of thing I do on my Conan blog.