A Case for Genre Simulation.
The main staple of fantasy role-playing ever since its inception has been, of course, Dungeons & Dragons (and its direct derivatives). In fact, its success has been so comprehensive that it has spawned an entire class of (failed) imitative role-playing games dubbed fantasy heartbreakers. From a rule design perspective, the D&D family of games have always been prioritizing rules that cater to players who enjoy the ‘Game’ aspect in RPGs the most. In recent years, however, narrative games have become more widespread, the most popular game among them arguably being a fantasy RPG called Dungeon World. Dungeon World, based on the Powered by the Apocalypse rules pattern, caters instead to role-players who prioritize the emergence of interesting stories during gameplay. And where D&D’s rules have been designed to introduce fun action and balanced classes, Dungeon World focusses more on mechanics in which one complication often leads to another, making for complex and intriguing stories when followed through to the end.
However, as a number of RPG theories hold, there is a third streak of role-players beyond gamists and narrativists for whom both approaches ultimately don’t quite scratch their particular itch: simulationists. Simulationists crave more plausible mechanics than RPGs that are only about fun action are willing to deliver – they need game rules that do not go counter to the game world they want to become immersed in. Simple hit point mechanics, for example, wouldn’t do – especially if getting struck by a sword doesn’t carry any wound penalties for the injured character. Even worse, many fantasy RPGs require player characters to max out on healing potions and healing spells before embarking on an adventure – none of it being evocative of the greatest fantasy epics like Conan, Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones.
Narrative RPGs, on the other hand, are completely adequate for recreating these stories. However, being storytelling-focussed, they do not concern themselves with recreating similar odds as their literary counterparts: their systems do not necessarily distinguish between shooting a standing target versus a running target. Again, for some role-players this would not do: for them, adventuring means having similar resources and facing comparable odds as Conan, Valeria, Bilbo, Gandalf, Daenerys or Jon Snow. To a simulationist, it’s not a real adventure unless you have faced at least similar (and sensible) odds as those fictional heroes. And to make, for example, a fight against a dragon every bit as daunting as in cinema, it should play out the way you would visually imagine it to do so, taking full account for heroes’ luck (like getting merely tossed aside by a dragon’s attack instead of being torn in half, etc). After all, without making an earnest attempt to simulate how a cinematic fight against a dragon might resolve, how can there be any real sense of accomplishment for a simulationist on victory? A fight against any random statblock with no resemblance to the beast of legends wouldn’t do. That’s why our game, Knights of the Black Lily, aims at making your victories feel more real and less arbitrary. With Knights of the Black Lily we’re making every effort to carefully design rules and statblocks, so that your games play out like your favorite fantasy movie, TV show, book or graphic novel would. And when you finally get to slay that dragon, we want you to feel like you fought and defeated a dragon, so that your deeds more closely measure up to the epics of any the above legendary characters.
Tangent 1. The idea of “having similar resources and facing comparable odds” leads to considerations that ultimately result in challenge-driven game design (more about that in the next part of this series).
Tangent 2. There’s two schools inside of simulationism: those that want their game world to have a realistic feel and those that want to recreate a specific fictional setting or that prefer a cinematic style. The first arguably include the games Hârnmaster, The Riddle of Steel and Song of Swords; the second group is what we are refering to as Genre Simulation. Genre Simulationists want to minimize the disruptions caused to their immersion by implausible rules.
Tangent 3. There are, of course, many more genre simulation RPGs, if you’re interested in these types of RPGs. More recent examples for this category of games would include to our mind Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars RPGs, Modiphius’ 2d20 games and Robin D. Law’s Feng Shui 2.
In the next installment of this multi-part series on the game design of Knights of the Black Lily, we will be taking a closer look at challenge-driven game design and how it is applied in the game rules of KOTBL. Make sure not to miss out on this new lens on RPG scenarios – for its principles can be applied to challenge the players in any RPG, simulationist or otherwise.