January 25, 2013

GMing Sim Play - Scaffolds and Boundaries

One of the coolest things about roleplaying games for players of all creative agendas is what's called Simulationist Play.  The D&D Next designers are calling it the "Exploration Pillar."  It's something you can't do very well in board games or video games.  I'll call it Sim Play because in a tabletop RPG, you're immersing yourself in a simulated world, and the more verisimilitude you can get, the more accessible this sort of play becomes.

Sim Play in Video Games

Video games do attempt this style of play, and it's called "sandbox play" in video game design.  Games like Scribblenauts, Civilization or Skyrim give you "sandbox" options.  In effect, they set boundaries for what you can do, and then give you a scaffold to help you do it.  The boundaries are the game's limitations on what you can try.  The scaffold is the nature of the problem the game wants you to creatively solve, so that some options work better than others.  Part of the scaffold is how the game communicates which options are going to be more effective.  You can do anything within the boundaries, and anything supported by the scaffold is likely to be more effective than things not supported.

Scribblenauts is an excellent example of a ludic / exploration pillar / sim play / sandbox game.  In Super Scribblenauts, a 2D platformer where you can enter words to create items out of thin air, you may be challenged to tame a lion.  You find yourself on a ledge looking down into a pit with an angry lion in it.  You can walk around, climb into the pit, and create anything in the Scribblenauts dictionary.  The boundaries are the 2D world, your movement options (climbing back out of the pit doesn't work!) and the list of things you can make in the Scribblenauts dictionary.  The scaffold is written into the specific challenge. It helps that you don't have to tame a lion before it can eat you, so you have time.  It helps that you can climb down into the pit if you want, if your idea involves touching the lion or putting some other object near it.  The scaffold also includes the information that your goal is to tame the lion (not kill it, not scare it away).  Most importantly, it includes the secret list of items that are effective at taming lions.

You could enter "Lion Tamer."  Easy answer!  Too bad the game doesn't have that in the dictionary -- so that's outside the boundaries of the challenge.  You could climb down and try to jump on the lion's back.  The lion would just kill you.  That action is not supported by the scaffold.  You could enter "Wings" and drop them on the lion, but now he will just fly up and kill you.  That's in bounds but not supported by the scaffold. You could also enter "love potion" and send it down to the lion, who would eat it and become tame.  That would be in bounds and supported.  Other options would be "whip" to make yourself a lion tamer, "scary bodyguard" to go down in the pit with and scare the lion into submission, or "treats" or "steak" to make it love you.

Sim Play in RPGs

Roleplaying games offer even more creative opportunities than Scribblenauts.  They have far wider boundaries and far more granular scaffolds.

Breadth of Boundaries
In a roleplaying game, you are not limited to the items that the game's creator specifically designed to be interactive.  A GM can describe a prison cell to you, and you can start to explore the "blank space" that the GM did not specify.  "Is there a window?"  "What do I see out it?"  "How is the window secured?"  "Are there other prisoners?"  "Did the guard smell like booze?"

Granularity of Scaffolding
In Scribblenauts, either the steak tames the lion or it doesn't.  In Pathfinder, for instance, it may give you an Equipment Bonus to a Handle Animal check to tame the lion.  It is more effective to try to tame a lion with a steak than without; but a love potion would be even more effective.  Scribblenauts could never implement such a granular system because it would have to consider the relative effectiveness of every object, with every possible modifier word, used in every possible way, for every challenge.  In a tabletop RPG, the GM is there to do just that!

In order for this kind of ludic play to actually be fun it has to have all the elements of good GMing:  A strong hook, transparent communication, and fair application of rules.

One of the problems with stat+skill systems, for instance, is that sometimes the player doesn't know what stat+skill the GM will call on him to use.  In a World of Darkness game, predicting when a wino prison guard gets drunk could be a Composure+Empathy (get a feel for his current level of craving) check, a Wits+Socialize (guess when he will go drinking) check, or an Intelligence+Medicine (understanding the patterns of addicts and analyzing the guard's symptoms and patterns) check or any number of other options. This fairly demolishes the scaffold:  Players have only some vague idea what works better, because they could be called upon to roll something they didn't anticipate and aren't good at.

On the other hand, more detailed systems may be very clear about what skills do what, while going overboard on rules and tables and modifiers.  In the 4th edition Shadowrun system, swimming from a sinking ship to the shore involves one clear skill...  and a page of modifiers.  If you created a Sim Play scene in Shadowrun 4 where one option was swimming, the players would probably avoid that option just because of the hideous rules for it.  The Stealth rules in Pathfinder, for example, are a huge improvement over d20/3.5ed because they remove some of the daunting and annoying complexity of the previous edition's system.  While you knew what skills did what, very clearly, you could never predict how hard the roll would be!

The hook is also important for scaffolding:  If the players find themselves in a prison cell, they may not be sure if this is an opportunity to prepare for their trial, or an escape scene.  The GM needs to clearly communicate the scene's objective.

Finally, and most importantly, you need to consider and communicate the boundaries the players have such as time, resources, space, location, and people.  Breaking out of a minimum security prison by the end of the week with the aid of a corrupt prison guard and allies on the outside is a different challenge from breaking out of a serial killer's basement dungeon where nobody knows you are, using only the equipment on your character sheet minus any weapons and obvious tools, before he gets back from his trip to the hardware store in an hour or so.  Ironically enough, despite (or because of) the fact that tabletop RPGs are the most open-ended medium for of ludic play, boundaries are crucial.

Be Intentional

Always use Sim Play intentionally.  Plan the beginning hook and the end condition, and then carefully design the scaffolding and boundaries for the space inside.  Running good Sim Play is a lesson I've learned the hard way.  As a very gamist/narrativist player, sim play can be frustrating to me.  (Where's the story choices?  Where's the risk/reward trade-off?  Why aren't the options presented in a distinct and balanced way and connected to story outcomes?)  Consequently, it's a skill that took me longer to develop as a GM.

Part of what helped me develop this skill are the skill challenges in 4th edition D&D.  Initially I hated skill challenges -- from a gamist perspective they're unbalanced, especially compared to the rest of 4e.  From a narrativist perspective, the players' ideas don't actually change the story outcome -- they either pass or fail, or pass with 1 or 2 failed rolls.  That's an outcome matrix with only 4 possibilities, and they seem like game outcomes, rather than intentional story choices for the players.

Then I designed and ran my first skill challenge as a GM...  I learned that the point was to create a very carefully bounded option space, scaffolded by a clear objective and clear starting point, and scaffolded by a limited and comprehensive skill list with a high degree of transparency.  Rituals, skill powers, equipment and feats also help expand the boundaries and make the scaffold more interesting.  The rules for skill challenges require the GM to set the boundaries (What is the hook?  What are the win and lose conditions?  Who has to participate and how much?) and design the scaffold (What skills are more or less appropriate?  What are some other ways skills can be used to help?  What are some advantages the players can call on?).  Then the GM can insert the challenge into the game organically:  "You need to navigate this icy mountain pass.  There is slippery, treacherous footing; hard climbs; confusing switchbacks; bitter, unendurable cold; and orcish scouts looking for you."  The description hooks the players into the scene, gives them the boundaries (location: mountain pass; time: before the cold kills you; objective: navigate through to the other side; fail condition: death or capture by orcs; possible penalties for failed rolls:  battle with orc scouts, losing health to the cold or painful falls).

Better yet, skill challenges are uncomplicated enough that they can be mixed into combat encounters, designed on the fly, or modified on the fly without causing problems.

This taught me that Sim Play can be done well, done carefully, and fun.  The 4e skill challenge system has its flaws, and I think a lot of what I've discovered about it needed to be written into the DMG.  But it gives the game a lot of depth without adding complexity.  Putting a structure like skill challenges around Sim Play scenes is an innovation that needs to be replicated!

Summary Toolbox

Sim play scenes can be amazing creative opportunities for the players.  But to make them amazing, they need to be carefully and transparently bounded, with scaffolding to prepare the GM and players for the problem solving process.  Think some things through when designing a sim scene.  It doesn't take much - just a little prep:

  1. Determine the boundaries of the scene:  
    • Space - where does it take place, and what are the limits of the space that are relevant to the scene?
    • Time - What is the time frame for this scene?
    • People - Who is involved, what are their plans, and what will it take to get them to help?
    • Resources - What are the resources available to the PCs?
  2. Scaffold the scene:
    • What are some possible solutions?  Decide on mechanics for them (skill check difficulties, resource costs, etc.)
    • What solutions should be easier?  (It's simplest for a GM to select a handful of "privileged" strategies and give them bonuses or lower difficulties.)
    • What will trigger failure conditions?  How will that work?  (You will encourage more creative play with a three strikes system rather than a zero tolerance system.)