Thursday, September 03, 2009

Simmulationism vs. Immersionism

It's not the great gulfs of distance between people that cause the real problems. It's the tiny differences that really get people riled up. D&D vs. Dogs in the Vineyard doesn't cause nearly the sort of angst and anger as D&D 3.5e vs. 4e.

Which explains why sometimes "Tao of D&D" rubs me the wrong way. He's a simulationist. He's all about building as complete and real a world as he can, and then letting the players run wild through it.

I'm an immersionist. What the heck is the difference? Tao works very hard to have all his ducks in a row from day one. He uses the real world as his template to make the work easier, investigates and designs appropriate weather patterns and economic systems and biologically sound ecosystems.

I, on the other hand, create the illusion via smoke and mirrors. To use a literary allusion, Tao is to alternative history authors like Harry Turtledove and Bruce Sterling, who work very hard to dig into the depths of history to make sure their alternative versions hold together, as I am to Robert Howard and Lovecraft, who create the illusion of complete worlds with a few words and a wave of their hand.

Verisimilitude is vital to both styles of play. Tao achieves it by creating amazing, intricate clockwork worlds where everything hangs together perfectly. I achieve it by allusion and suggestion, and trusting my players will pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, pulling on levers and rattling sheets of metal to create the sound of thunder.

How do you create the illusion? One or two well-placed and unexpected details will usually do the trick. What do I mean by unexpected? Here's a sentence from Lovecraft's “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” that illustrates it perfectly: “In the morning Carter joined a caravan of merchants bound for Dylath-Leen with the spun wool of Ulthar and the cabbages of Ulthar's busy farms. “

Where's the magic? Cabbages. In the middle of this tale of diabolical alien gods, ghouls, and darkly twisted woods, the people of Ulthar grow cabbages. These cabbages have nothing to do with Carter's quest, or with much of anything for that matter. They're a bit of seemingly random local color.

The truth is, the players expect a tavern or inn, and they expect a general store where they can buy more 50' lengths of rope. Even jazzing these up won't really stick in their minds. But they'll remember the way everyone in town has stained their teeth and tongue black chewing on licorice root. The odd way everyone ends any sentence including a personal pronoun by spitting in the dust, or how all magic-users are made to wear purple hats will stick in their minds. These sorts of things don't have to make sense (and, in fact, it helps if they don't sometimes) but they should be small and fairly inconsequential.

The Dream Quest is a great resource for this sort of thing, being a travelogue in miniature, where dozens of tiny places, people, and races are described briefly and then passed over. It's a surreal story, very much a thing of feverdream. It's the tiny details, like Ulthar's cabbages, the yellow silken mask of “that High-Priest Not To Be Described”, the tickling night-gaunts, and the “jasper terraces of Kiran which slope down to the river's edge and bear that temple of loveliness wherein the King of Ilek-Vad comes from his far realm on the twilight sea once a year in a golden palanquin to pray to the god of Oukianos, who sang to him in youth when he dwelt in a cottage by its banks.“

UPDATE: Alexis has posted on his blog with more detail on his technique. Be sure to check it out.

Art credits: James Campbell and David the Younger Teniers


Unknown said...

Love it. :)

trollsmyth said...

Thanks. :)

Nope said...

Nice post! I thought I was a simulationist but when I think about it I think my style is only part simulationism with a heavy dose of improv and collaboration.

The key to creating the illusion I think is that when the players pursue undefined questions you can explore the mystery with them.

This is where improvisation and collaboration, the key ingredients as far as I'm concerned for role playing games, steps in. It keeps me from worrying about the details and allows the players to help create the setting and the story.

For me simulation comes into play when I'm trying to represent a concept in game to a player that has little to no knowledge or assumptions about. The simulation comes from creating the details relevant to the mystery. This way clues make sense, the world has verisimilitude and all is good.

Talysman said...

I'm not sure "immersionism" is the best word for it, since it means so many different things to different people, but I'm not sure what to call it instead. I did a post a while back about "rational detail" versus "leaping and lingering", talking about the same thing. Perhaps another set of labels would be "blueprint" vs. "sketch". I like to define things based on how they are different than expected; other people prefer defining them based on rigorous detailing of fundamentals.

Unknown said...

I've heard people talk about "illusionism" as well, which is something else.

Natalie said...

The distinction in what's going on behind the scenes is pretty clear, but what do you think the difference is "in play?" Working everything out ahead of time according to logical principles gives more support when the players start asking pesky questions, but obviously you can handle those most of those questions even without that, and a more smoke-and-mirrors style would give more flexibility in shaping those answers to suit the particular needs of the campaign, but there must be more differences than just those two.

trollsmyth said...

kaeosdad: The key to creating the illusion I think is that when the players pursue undefined questions you can explore the mystery with them.

That's one of my favorite parts. :D

Talysman: I'm afraid I was making up the nomenclature with my tongue firmly embedded in my cheek. I stand ready to change names and titles if there's actually a consistent and agreed-upon terminology out there.

Oddysey: What kaeosdad said. When someone throws a random question or a sudden change in direction at Tao, he just looks it up. When you throw me an odd question or the group decides they don't want to explore the ruins, but would really rather go help the pirates, I have to wing it.

Immersionism really requires that you not just be comfortable with improv-style flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, you have to love it. Because you'll be doing it a lot. As your players dig deeper into your background, you have to make sure that what you're saying today hangs with what you've done in the past, because they'll likely remember the details better than you will.

Which takes me back to big themes. They are your lifepreserver in the choppy seas of play. When you need to come up with something on the fly, if you make sure it stays true to your themes, you're more likely to maintain that consistency that allows for verisimilitude.

And what happens when you stumble and get yourself tangled in your own web of themes and details? That's probably a future post. ;)

Anonymous said...

Great post, ties in really well with Chgowiz's Dispelling a myth - Sandbox prep:

Unknown said...

I think if you're making up major elements on the fly you're drifting into a different style of play. The old "Pick Door A or Door B" scenario where the answer doesn't matter because you're going to improv something regardless of which they pick.

Filling in the details is one thing. Building the entire thing on the fly is something else. :)

trollsmyth said...

Stuart: I'm not quite sure I get what you're saying.

The choices the players make are not so much "left or right" as "pirates or ancient ruins". What does it matter if I'm making up the pirates a week in advance or five minutes in advance so long as the players get their pirates?

Unknown said...

Pirates or Ancient Ruins sounds like a good choice because it implies a meaningful difference in outcomes. If the choices aren't as clear about what the result will be ("Oak door or stairs down") and you're just waiting for them to choose something before you improv what happens next, that's different. If it doesn't *really* matter what choice the players make - that's a different play style.

I think there are ways to make both styles work well - but you definitely want to avoid some types of scenarios if you're just improving everything. A dungeon crawl or mystery (*cough*LOST*cough*) isn't as good if it's being made up as you go. :)

Unknown said...

@ Stuart's comment about a dungeon crawl being something best pre-planned -

In my experience, with only a small amount of pre-planning consisting mainly of a couple of words scrawled directly onto the map to indicate what a room or corridor is or is occupied by and a handful of notecards with traps, treasures or denizens, you can "wing" an awesome dungeon crawl.

The key is to listen to the talk amongst the players as they try to make sense of the details you give them. If you have every detail already set in stone the entire experience is much less a collaboration between the players' imagination and your own and more of you walking the player's through your world.

No matter how much time and effort you put into fleshing out every nook and cranny of the dungeon, the players will feel that the place makes more sense and that they are actually figuring stuff out about it if you have left enough room to respond to the suggestions and inspiration that the player's will unwittingly give you while talking it out amongst themselves.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I promise you I take all your points in the spirit in which they are intended, and therefore in good spirits. But I would like to point something out that may have escaped your notice.

For a living, when I am not wholly unemployed (and I'm not now, as more freelance work becomes available), I am a fiction novelist and humorist. I do not plan in meticulous detail every word I write out, I tend to just start at the beginning, produce a tiger and - holding onto its tail - give it a good kick to start it running.

Making up stories is my reason to live. ALL the events which occur in my campaigns are created, fleshed out and further developed while the running is in session. I do not make town maps, I do not make dungeons, I do not build clock-like arrangements where "everything hangs together perfectly." I would be horribly, nastily, extravagantly bored.

I am not even planning out this response, but rather only stabbing it out in the dark as I slap each word on the end of the one before. See that phrase? I just made that up, on the spot, rather casually and without thought.

What's behind that pillar? Hell if I know. Let's see, its a ... two seconds now ... bugbear. What is a bugbear doing in town? Uh, he's the half brother of the merchant across the street, who's been keeping him locked up in the basement and now he's loose. Have fun.

That is how my worlds flow. No prep, no plan. They may be sandboxes, but the players don't get to make up every event that happens.

You might just consider, immersion and simulation work rather well together.

Thanks for the notice, and merry well ye good bastard.

trollsmyth said...

But, dude, an Excell spreadsheet with just under 500 cities on it so you can monitor the price of commodities based on distance between manufacture and sale?!?

Seriously, you're clearly having fun, so I won't go into any foaming-at-the-mouth about "wasted time", since, when you get down to it, it's not any more wasted than time spent on golf or bridge, and a lot less wasted than time spent in front of the TV. I look forward to seeing what your tables look like. Having recently been reminded of the Tulip Mania, I'm curious if your spreadsheet factors in various demand-side forces as well.

Immersion certainly does require a certain level of simmulation; verisimilitude is based, in part, on things being understandable and consistent. We're more opposite ends of a continuum than anything else, I think. As I say at the beginning, tiny differences.

PS - Updated this post with a link to your response. Thanks for taking the time. :D

Unknown said...

Nothing breaks the immersion for me more than realizing the writer/gm is making it all up as they go. That's true for D&D, X-Files, Lost, etc.

Trying to figure out the mystery is kinda lame if there isn't one to start with. :)

Nope said...

@stuart: You're missing the point.

The idea is to craft a story, but not everything can be accounted for ahead of time. Exploring the mystery involves figuring out uncharted details as you play. This can be as simple as improvising using results that comes up on a table, but if there is no table you use reason and established canon within the story to decide what makes sense for the situation.

I think trollsmyth put it best, what's the difference if it's been planned out 1 week or 5 minutes in advance? I can see this sort of approach back firing with a lazy dm who has no story whatsoever, but even a dm who has spent weeks crafting a story will inevitably come to a point during a game session where the need to explore the mystery with the players will come up.

If you want to play a preplanned game with no spontanaiety go play a video game.

Also a well crafted story usually has an end, and at the very minimum key points about the story determined ahead of time. But detailing an entire world?

Trying to simulate an environment so that the dm knows everything without any sort of mystery on their end with the exception of "what will my players do and how will they react?" It's an impossible task, one that's never been done and never will, that's where trying to categorize ones self as a Simulationist fails.

Well, I hope that was coherent enough to understand, I probably repeated myself on some things, but hey I'm not a writer.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Also, Stuart,

In addition to Kaeo's Dad's fine points, I beg to point out that as a novelist I am used to concocting more than just a circumstantial detail in a given situation. I am always thinking long range as well as short range ... so that the thing you fear the most, that there is no sense to what I'm dreaming up five minutes before handing it to you simply isn't a condition of my world.

I may make it up on the spot, but I'm clever and there will be a reason for it far down the road, that will simultaneously fit with the overall theme of the adventure. I always have a grand design to every thing I do, and my improvisations invariably fit within the grand design.

It is a fair concern, and I have played with DMs who made up so much random disconnected nonsense that it became impossible to play in their worlds. This is, I'm sure, what you are alluding to. Not every DM falls into that trap, however.