How to Run a Game (Part 3) - Getting everyone on the same page

I mentioned in the previous post that we didn't have the terminology to adequately describe what was happening in games back in the 80s and 90s. We didn't really think we needed it, there were people who were good at running games and there were people who weren't. Some people ran games that meshed with certain groups of players and others just didn't match their running style to the style of the players in their group. If a person running a game had enough tools in their toolkit, they could tailor their style of game to match the players in the group...but then you need to consider whether a person runs a game better because they have more tools at their disposal, or because they are better at using use the tools they've got. 

Then in the early 2000s came the first real attempt to codify tabletop roleplaying games. This was the web forum known as "The Forge", massively influential in independent gaming circles as certain designers loved the ideas coming out of it, while others went out of their way to steer clear of it. One of the most controversial ideas to come out of the forge was the idea that people play games for one of three reasons. One of the key controversies here was that there was no blending of the three reasons, everyone picked one and one alone. This was considered the gaming holy trinity of "GNS"... (G)amism, (N)arrativism, and (S)imulationism. There are essays about these ideas, and if you want to go down that rabbit hole, here's the link. However, I've got a looser interpretation of the terms that has served me well over the past couple of decades, and I feel that most players actually do blend the ideas inherent in my interpretation. First I'll describe the pure terms, then I'll describe the ways they blend. 

(G)amism - A player with this mindset wants to win. They enjoy the minutiae of the rules, and they treat every situation in the game as a challenge to be won. The Gamist focuses on maximizing the benefits of their character, and minimising any flaws, conversely they maximize their enemies weaknesses, and minimize their enemies strengths. They tend to have a very mechanical view of the game, and have a tendency to gravitate toward complex rule systems where they can mix and match the elements that play to their strengths best.  

(N)arrativism - A player with this mindset wants to find a story. They don't care too much what happens, because a good story can come from comedy or tragedy. The Narrativist doesn't necessarily want to know how the story will unfold at the start of play, they're in it for the thrill of the ride, the ups are just as important as the downs. This kind of character wants to see their characters and their world develop in meaningful and interesting ways. They tend to have a loose and flowing interpretation of the game, and may be inclined to ignore certain rules and rulings if it is in the interests of the story.

(S)imulationism - A player with this mindset wants their session experience to reflect a specific paradigm. The Simulationist may gravitate to game settings focused around a licensed media such as a specific television show, comic, or series of novels, and in this case they will focus on rules that reinforce that setting while rebelling against ideas that aren't a part of the setting's established canon. Conversely, the simulationist may have expectations in the storytelling, they'll allow changes to the setting, as long as the format of the session follows a "three-act" structure, or follows scientific realism. They tend to be more focused on ensuring rulings match genre expectations, regardless of whether those rulings make the game fair, or make the story more engaging. 

A blend of Gamism and Narrativism is where players want to win, but they want to tell a good story in the process. They might understand the concept of the heroes journey and may know that a hero needs to face some defeats along the way to ensure that the final victory is sweeter, but for them they need to make sure the ending is satisfying and their choices have made a positive difference for their avatars in the game world.

A blend of Gamism and Simulationism is where players really don't care about the story, they just want conquest in the terms of the genre they are playing. They don't particularly care about character motivations or ulterior motives, except as puzzles, or elements of background detail that add verisimilitude to the setting where their strategic maneuvering is taking place. Everything can be broken down into numbers, and the numbers reflect the setting where the actions occur.    

A blend of Narrativism and Simulationism is where players want to tell a story within specific genre conventions but don't mind pushing the envelope if that's where the story leads them, or don't mind jarring twists in the story if that's what the setting dictates. This kind of player may enjoy the downward spiral, because it makes for good anecdotes later.   

Some folks blend all fact most people probably waver between the descriptions depending on the game they're playing and the people they're playing with. Someone who is passionate about Star Wars might verge closer to simulationism if they're playing a game with Jedi and Mandalorians, but they might be more narrativist when they're playing a game with a medieval setting (because they have less of a vested interest in seeing the game played according to their preconceived notions). 

So the key is basically to know what sort of players you've got in your group, and tailor your running style to match the players. Or curate your players by only choosing players who suit your running style.

If you intend to run a confrontational game, then gamists might suit your play style because they'll always be trying to think a step ahead of you and the session will effectively become a game that can be won. This sort of game requires balanced encounters, maybe a few easy ones and a few hard ones, but to get satisfaction out of those players who prefer to play with a gamist mindset. You'll really need to know the rules well if you want this style of game to work, because nothing disrupts the flow of aa confrontational game like minutes wasted looking through pages of rule books for specific mechanisms of play that impact specific situations.  

If you intend to run a carefully plotted game, intended to immerse your players in a specific story that you've preconcieved, gamist players are probably not a good group to work with because you'll have them trying to beat your scenes strategically rather than trying to follow your lead. Narrativists are probably also a bad fit, because they'll want to make meaningful decisions of their own, even if it goes against what you had in mind for a final destination. Simulationists are probably best in this regard, but if you're going to play in an established setting from a well-known media, you'll need to make sure you know the setting at least as well as the players, because the last thing you need is a player pulling out an obscure piece of trivia that might derail your whole plan.

Suppose you intend to run a political game, with various characters vying for power, and different factions carefully negotiating who they're in conflict with at the moment, and who might be the ally of the hour. In that case, narrativists will get into character and try to reveal the stories within stories that drive the mysteries and intrigue. Gamists will probably struggle in this type of setting because there are no easy answers, and victory against one opponent might lead to unforeseen complications. In this case the simulationists will try to work out the rules governing the politics of play, so you'll need to make sure you have carefully plotted diagrams and relationship maps describing connections across the setting.

If you intend to run an open-world sandbox game, narrativists will look for ways to take disparate elements in the game and weave them into a coherent storyline, simulationists will try to immerse themselves in the setting as they explore the nuances and try to understand the way the mechanisms of the world weave into a coherent setting, and gamists will try to conquer the whole thing. Each of these will work, but not necessarily at the same time.   

There are numerous other types of game that can be played, and different ways that the various player types will tend to interact with them. So there are a couple of rules of thumb.

  1. Curate your group. If you've got a group of people who love engaging in character-driven narratives, and someone wants to join the group to dominate the conversation, conquer the world, or make their permanent mark on the group, they might not be a good fit, and you should voice your concerns before they come into play. Similarly, if everyone is competitive and trying to one-up each other, there might not be many opportunities for a player who wants to get into their character's headspace, they simply might not enjoy the session. It's everybody's session, but if you've taken on the role of running the game you've got a stronger vested interest in its success. If you don't think you can accommodate a certain type of player (or if you know there are real-world social tensions between two or more players) feel free to let them know why you don't think things will work. Be open about things like this. Dark secrets and mismatches of player types can fester and ruin a game.  
  2. Play to your player's strengths. Players often engage in sessions of roleplaying for a bit of escapism, and a power trip that they just can't get in the real world. If you know a player enjoys immersing themselves in the world and interacting with NPCs, they might tend toward the simulationist experience because they want to feel a part of the setting, or they might tend toward the narrativist experience because they want to push the story forward and see where it leads. Give them opportunities to do this. If you know that Mary loves star trek and you're running a campaign focused on the space station Deep Space 9, let her play a historian, and let her provide details about the setting that you might not know. It doesn't matter if the game system you're using doesn't necessarily facilitate this type of thing, tweak the rules, give her simulationism the chance to shine. If you know that John loves to solve riddles and win in contests of mindplay, give him some puzzles, and let him drive his character into situations where his advantages are key to the ongoing story (even if this is feeding his gamist desires). Everyone likes their moment to shine.  
  3. Reward your players (but leave them wanting more). There's a delicate balance here, and one that every person running a game will need to work out for themselves. The main point here is that players should get satisfaction out of attending a game, in much the same way that their characters gain treasures, gold, new levels, or whatever else the game system uses as it's reward system within the game. Give simulationists their rewards for immersing in the world and understanding it's rules. Give gamists the victories they crave. Give narrativists interesting stories and meaningful choices that direct the flow of the tale. 

Overall, the important thing is knowing what your players want out of the game, and letting them know what each other might want out of the game. As long as everyone understands the general group dynamic, there won't be major surprises and discordant play styles. Then you can start focusing on the details,  


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