Origins: Clockwork Bullshit

Origins is a series of posts in which I reflect upon my earliest gaming memories as well as the events that shaped my tastes and understanding of games. The rest of the series can be found here.

This is not the first time I have returned to the hobby after an extended break.

My initial rush of interest in gaming played out primarily over my late-teens and early-twenties with a group of people I had known since childhood. People would leave the group, people would join the group but the flavour of the group was determined by the fact that it had started out as a bunch of teenaged weirdos making up shit at their parents’ dining tables.

My second rush of interest in the hobby led me to join a group made up of people I met over the internet. The group worked really well for a number of years until the tensions between the players made things unworkable but I’m not here to write about how things ended. I am here to write about how they started out.

As I’ve said in previous posts in this series, my initial forays into gaming had been these heavily top-down enterprises where GMs would not only control the narrative and the content of their fictional worlds, they would often use that narrative power as a real-life club to resolve conflicts that were in no-way game related. As my adolescence waned, the weird desire to dominate one’s peer-group dissipated but the instinctual need for control did not. For example, it was not unusual for investigation-based adventures to have one single solution and for GMs to sit there for hours eating crisps and smirking while their players tore their hair out in frustration.

Even less egregious adventures would often assume a kind of cinematic structure whereby the GM would come up with a load of set-pieces that the players would then ‘experience’ in a semi-passive fashion. In these games, players did have some degree of agency but the freedom was usually limited to self-created sub-plots that would often arise from a player taking exception to an NPC or some feature of the world and taking it upon themselves to get up in their grill. These sub-plots were invariably a huge amount of fun but they were always parenthetical to the action… you’d mess with an NPC or raise a little hell and that would eat up a little time but the understanding was that you would eventually get bored and go back to the main plot, which the GM would spray into your face until you got bored or distracted and decided to go off and do your own thing again. I have, of late, spent some time listening to a few Actual Play podcasts and it is fascinating to see that this type of structure is still quite common: Players go on epic quests, then they wander into town and either role-play a shopping trip, do some back-story related stuff, or get in trouble with an NPC and that generally takes up a single episode before everyone goes back to the main plot and its conveyor belt of tactical engagements.

This was, I assumed, how RPGs functioned as there was no way to prepare a game session in which everyone had complete autonomy and so GMs would improvise these lapses of idiosyncratic autonomy before dragging everyone back to a series of scripted encounters. It’s not just that this was how I assumed RPGs worked… I could not imagine any other way in which they might function. This changed the day I hooked up with my second long-term group.

Before I go on, I’d like to bring up the term ‘Simulationism’. Simulationism is one of three creative agendas described in the theoretical writings of Ron Edwards though its roots can be traced back to the mid-90s and the Threefold model that was developed on the Usenet group If you read that Edwards essay, you’ll find his ideas a bit of a mess and there are two principle reasons for that: The first is that the Threefold model guys defined ‘Simulationism’ in negative terms in so far as it was a style of play that was neither concerned with the playing of a game, nor with the creation of stories. The second reason for Edwards’ lack of clarity on the question of Simulationism is that he was far more interested in the other creative agendas and so never really bothered to get his head around that particular style of play. Indeed, some of the people who posted on Edwards’ message board argued that there was no such thing as Simulationism on the grounds that the theory was under-developed and they weren’t interested in it anyway. This is a bit like me saying that there’s no such thing as Earthenware pottery because theoretical writings about it are rather thin on the ground and they’re ugly-arsed pots anyway. Fast forward a couple of decades and Eero Tuovinen (a staunch advocate of the theoretical model developed by Edwards) wrote a brilliant piece outlining how Simulationism might work as a coherent creative agenda.

I mention Simulationism as I don’t think the style of play that dominated my early group was an example of that particular creative agenda. We might have thought that GMs were simulating worlds in their own heads but in truth what we were engaging in was a kind of lumpen Narrativism that had a GM choose or create a story that they would then impose upon the players. Under this creative agenda, players were allowed to be creative and to tell their own stories but only on a very small scale and only in situations where it did not disturb the GM’s primary narrative. Back in those days, I would read and argue about players making their own decisions but I don’t think I understood what that meant until I hooked up with my second long-term group.

This second group was much older and it favoured historical RPGs with little-to-no magic. What this meant in practice was that the primary GM would find a setting and period-appropriate Call of Cthulhu character sheet and have everyone roll-up setting and period-appropriate equivalents of your typical Call of Cthulhu character: Namely, competent professionals with skillsets commensurate with membership of the setting’s middle-class.

Campaigns generally started with the group arriving in town and being forced together by some quirk of fate. This quirk of fate would generally take the form of a dangling plot-hook that the group would engage resulting in their gaining enough money and clout to establish a temporary foothold in the city. For example, the first session I experienced with this group had us playing a bunch of people who happened to meet up in Renaissance Italy. Upon arriving in town and becoming known to each other, we learned of a pawn broker who had acquired a bad reputation by ripping off his customers. Pooling our resources and competences, we fanned the flames of local dissent in an effort to make the pawn broker even more unpopular and then, under the guise of a riot that we had indirectly initiated, we set fire to his shop and made off with his stock. This provided us with the capital to rent a suite of rooms and seek our fortunes.

So far, so predictable: Historical games never seem to get the respect and visibility they’re due in RPG culture but this type of set-up and introductory session can be transposed to practically any setting and period you desire. What made this group interesting, was what happened in the second session.

Having toasted the pawn broker and secured a place to sleep, the group immediately broke up into its constituent parts. One member of the group was a priest, another was a sailor, and another was a kind of apothecary and the style of play was very much dictated by the player of the apothecary who used his share of the moneys to set up his own business. These wheels set in motion, the GM then moved across to the sailor who used his money to secure lines of credit that allowed him to buy expensive clothes and so pass himself off as a sea captain before going in search of a commission. As the player of the priest, I found all of this a bit overwhelming as the players seemed to be creating their own plot-hooks that the GM would then attach to his understanding of the world. I remember freezing in place before hitting on the idea of giving an angry speech denouncing the local Church. This attracted the attention of a local bishop who assumed I was trying to shake him down and told me to go and clear out a corrupt nunnery. Having arrived at the nunnery, I noted that the previous priests were all made to disappear and the young novices appeared to be leaving the convent in carriages and returning with wealthy gentlemen. Faced with a choice between being murdered for an attempt at moral reform and using my rhetorical skills to cloak the young ladies in a veneer of righteousness, I chose the second option.

Aside from the willingness to not only split the party but also allow each member of the party to have their own parallel adventures, the GM’s approach to play was fascinating in that all he ever seemed to do was confront the players with the consequences of their actions: The more choices the players made, the further they climbed. The further they climbed, the more money and enemies they acquired. The more enemies they acquired, the more they found themselves having to turn to each other for help.

Back in the day, I saw this style of play as a kind of bourgeois escapism based around the fantasy that being in possession of certain skills meant that you could secure for yourself a middle-class lifestyle even if you did not necessarily have the kinds of clout or social connections required to access real-world middle-class institutions. While many superhero comics draw on the fantasy that punching bad guys solves social problems, these games seemed to draw on the fantasy of meritocracy. In hindsight, it is telling that the guy running these games was very much a product of Blair-era social mobility when being in possession of a good degree and a decent brain meant that you could reasonably expect to wind up with a middle-class job.

While I have always recognised the fantastical nature of the worldview animating this style of play, I had and have a great deal of respect for the idea of running a game where, rather than writing a story and imposing it upon your players, you come up with a setting and allow the players to find their own way through the social landscape. This for me is what Simulationism should be all about: Having a simulation of a world running in the GM’s head and what passes for ‘plot’ is actually just the result of the players making decisions that affect the simulation.

I have used this moment as the basis for an Origins post as this style of play was hugely influential on me for a very long time. I remember playing with this group for a number of months and then spending a weekend with my first long-term group. Someone else was running and they had their adventure start in some evocating village but because I had spent months honing my instincts for Simulationist-style play, my response to the village was not to seek out the plot but rather to seek for avenues of material enrichment within the village. So rather than going on a quest to resolve some problem with a necromancer, we wound up getting involved in the construction of a bridge that we then parlayed into a job as castle-builders. When the session ended, the GM was completely puzzled, he had only intended the bridge-building to be a form of set-dressing but we had treated it as something no less real than the threat posed by the necromancer.

The obvious issue with this style of play is that it requires a GM who is not only able to improvise but improvise in a way that is consistent with the setting and for extended periods of time. The less obvious issue with this style of play is that not all players are up to it… just as a lot of readers and film-viewers are content to sit there and experience a carefully-designed story, a lot of gamers are just content to be herded through a series of well-designed set pieces.

One of the unfortunate side-effects of first the Threefold model and then GNS not taking Simulationism seriously as a style of play is that there’s been a tendency to assume that Simulationism is the ‘default’ style of play and so requires no real support beyond the basic conceptual hurdles required to first play and then run an entry-level RPG. If you want to know how to play in a gamist style, then there are dozens of websites teaching you how to optimise your builds and assemble a cohesive team. Similarly, if you want to play in a narrativist style then there are loads of blog-posts and detailed introductions telling you about sharing narrative duties and respecting the choices made by players about their characters. However, if you want to learn how to improvise for long periods of time or adapt your assumptions to fit different periods, settings, or genres, then the support is rather muddled and underwhelming. Simulationism is a creative agenda in its own right and as such there is an undeniable difficulty curve involved in playing it correctly. I’m not sure I even understood half of those skills until I played with my second long-term group.

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