I haven’t posted anything specifically about games for a while, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about them or playing them. Mostly I just haven’t had a lot of time to write because I’ve been drinking computer security from a firehose due to new project responsibilities at work.

Since I started in semi-professional game design a couple of years ago (I co-authored a couple of supplements for Ars Magica), I’ve undergone a big shift in my approach to game design. I’ve moved from being a simulationist to being much more of a gamist.

The simulationist approach to games looks for rules and systems that try to some extent to simulate reality. Simulationist games tend to have lots of rules and the rules tend to be rather complex because they try to cover everything, or at least as much as possible. D&D Third Edition is probably about as far toward the simulationist end of the spectrum as mainstream games are likely to get. In the 1980s and ’90s there were other simulationist games out there — Rolemaster, Aftermath! — I’m dating myself but you get the idea.

Now, simulationist games have a lot going for them. They offer a lot of options. It’s easy to get creative traction, both as a player and as a gamemaster, when the rules cover so many different kinds of situations. Besides, they appeal to my fascination with learning.

The contrasting approach, which I call “gamist,” is not concerned with trying to make rules terribly realistic, but instead focuses on trying to make the game fun to play. Simplicity is not an inherent value of gamist systems, but gamist systems do tend to be simpler because to a gamist, complexity is not valued for its own sake. They tend toward abstract rules that leave a lot to the judgment and imagination of the players. First edition Ars Magica was probably the most gamist system I played in my heavy-gaming college days, not that there is anyone else left alive who actually played that game.

So, why the switch? I’ve finally come around to realize that trying to make a complete, simulationist game is a fool’s errand. It’s a huge undertaking and no one has the knowledge and insight to make a perfect simulationist system. Therefore all simulationist games have flaws, and the longer you play those types of games, the more apparent the flaws become. When I was younger I didn’t much notice, because like most gamers I cheerfully disregarded any rule I didn’t like. This became second nature, to the point where I didn’t really realize how often I was doing it. In fact, I strongly suspect I did this when I didn’t remember a particular rule and didn’t care to be bothered to look it up.

Today, my years of experience as an engineer have made me a lot better at working to a specification and looking things up when I don’t know them off the top of my head. Working as a playtester for Ars Magica taught me to apply those habits to games. When I play a simulationist game, I now habitually play the game exactly as written and I end up looking up a lot of things. Very often I am a bit disappointed with what I find: either it seems unrealistic to me (and what’s the point of playing a simulationist game if the end result is unrealistic), or it’s unbalanced (meaning unfair in some practical sense), or it takes ten minutes to explain the rule to my gaming group. My years of experience as an engineer have also made me better at finding fault. Simulation is hard to do well.

There are other factors. I’ve been playing RPGs for about three decades now, and the classic dungeon crawl has kind of lost its appeal. If I’m in the mood for senseless, repetitive violence in a game, computer games can provide it on demand. As my gaming buddies and I start families and even (gasp!) take up other hobbies, face-to-face games get fewer and farther between. At the same time, computer games are getting better at delivering a good simulationist experience. What I’m looking for in a face-to-face game these days are the things computer games can’t provide: the human element. That means a strong story, compelling characters, and in-depth role-playing, plus the social aspects of a face-to-face game. Simulationist RPG rules don’t help with any of that (though neither do they necessarily hurt).

As games have become harder to schedule and gamers harder to find, I find myself losing interest in forcing a complex, simulationist rule system on my players. These friends of mine are adults who have their own priorities and their own preferences. They’re willing to play along with a complex game, but they then understandably tend to look to me to be the rules expert and to guide them. Taking even two minutes out of the action to explain something like the D&D (Third Edition) grappling rules tends to ruin the action. The bigger the group, the bigger this issue becomes. Complex rule sets don’t scale well to big groups. My 3rd Ed. D&D group has seven, and that is about as big a group as I’d care to handle with those rules.

These days, I don’t get a thrill out of memorizing a 300-page book of rules. I can do that all I want in my day job. Likewise, I want to be able to create and level up a character without having to use a computer program to do it. I still play D&D because I and all my players are invested in that system (part nostalgia, part tradition), and Ars Magica (which can’t seem to figure out whether it’s simulationist or
gamist) because I love the setting and the magic system so much. If I were to pick up a new game, though, it would probably be something relatively lightweight. I bought a copy of Savage Worlds a few months ago. It’s a complete game in one, 160-page paperback and it’s just the sort of thing I feel ready to try.