Old School Renaissance Eclipse Part I – Simulationism

The “Old School Renaissance” notion has a fairly strong following. Ergo, I’m going to take a look at how to do it in Eclipse.

Old-school gaming is heavily simulationist. That’s partly because modern roleplaying games sprang from simulationist wargaming, partially because such rules are easier to write, and mostly because that made “lets pretend” (with some rulebooks to sort out who shot who) relatively easy to explain.

“Ok, pretend you’re Batman / Indiana Jones / Hans Solo and you’re in this situation… What are you going to try to do about it?”

The first rule for old-school gaming is pretty simple – but it really has more to do with attitude and setting than with the rule system.

Physics, not Rules

To illustrate the difference, here we have a power. It could be an enchantment on a ring, a bit of mystic lore, some eastern-style C’hi power, or whatever. Lets call it..

Mountain Root Stance (At-Will, 3/Day, up to 10 minutes):

  • Description: You may bind yourself to the earth beneath you.
  • Effect: The Character becomes immovable.

That’s simple enough, yes?

Now, for a simulationist, it’s the description that matters: the mechanical effect is just a quick rule-of-thumb to help simulate what’s going on. Obviously Mountain Root Stance doesn’t truly render you immobile or (at least in many settings) the planet would leave you behind or squash you. You’re just anchored to the ground – and enough force will simply rip up the ground you’re on OR rip the characters legs off. If the ground moves, so do you. It won’t work if, say, you’re flying. For the simulationist, the rules are simply there as an aid to representing the “reality” of the game world – and when the rules don’t properly represent the setting, the rules get tweaked.

From the gamist prospective it’s the mechanic that matters. You are, after all, playing a game, not actually living in a fantasy world. Thus you can’t actually test all those oddities. You CAN test the mechanics and apply them without a lot of subjective rulings. The mechanics are (or at least should be) balanced against each other, and tinkering with them fouls things up. There’s something to be said for this approach. In fact, in quite a lot of games and settings, you have no choice about it; if there isn’t enough information about how the setting works available (something which is all too common), all you’re left with is the mechanic.

You can see that conflict all the time. Someone will use a game-mechanical effect and someone else will be saying “Yes, I see what the mechanical effects are – but what is the character actually doing to cause that?”

In a well-written set of rules, the description will agree with the mechanic all the time. Want to guess how common that is?

For a classical example, at one point a group of AD&D-style characters in one of my campaigns were in (realistic, not spelljammer) space. The rules didn’t cover space very well – but a couple of things had been noted, such as “no maximum range on projectiles”. After all, they DID keep going.

The characters ship was under attack; they were being harassed by a small base firing a laser cannon at them from somewhere (and they had no idea where) on the surface of the planet they were orbiting.

One player had his character put on a suit, climb out, and attempt to throw a grenade at the attackers.

I pointed out that even if he could throw the grenade out of orbit (which he couldn’t), and it wouldn’t detonate long before getting anywhere (which it would), and it wouldn’t burn up on re-entry (which it would), and it wouldn’t hit along a limited track on the surface if it could make it through the atmosphere (which it would), his chance of getting a grenade close enough to a small base to damage anything was utterly minuscule.

He was quite upset. After all, if there was no maximum range, he should be able to throw the grenade as far as he wanted, missiles were always considered to reach their target as a part of the user’s action, there were no rules for unprotected re-entry damage or vectors, and he knew he had a 5% chance to hit – he might roll a “20″.

For me, the rules were there to provide some handy shortcuts in simulating the setting; where the rules didn’t reflect that setting accurately it was the role of the game master to override them. The rules did not accurately simulate throwing grenades from orbiting ships at planets, so the rules gave way.

For him, the rules were there to give structure to the game, and if the footnotes on those rules didn’t address a situation – admittedly, an odd one in the context of those first-edition rules – the rules applied and whatever problem I saw in that was a matter for a later supplement (even if it meant another few pages of house rules for a situation that would probably never come up again had to be typed up, handed around, explained, and discussed).

In that particular case it was my game, and the rest of the players (all technical types) were looking at him like he was completely crazy, so the “No, you don’t get a roll. What you want to do is impossible” simulationist ruling was used – but a game can certainly be run the other way entirely. Some modern games, such as fourth edition, are designed for it.

Older edition games didn’t avoid tables (in fact, many older games delighted in them), or modifiers, or special maneuvers, or all kinds of crazy stunts and special attacks. They simply recognized that no usable set of tables could ever be detailed enough to be realistic.

A modern game might include some combat modifiers for “smoke” – perhaps even several thicknesses of smoke.

An old-school game wouldn’t – and it’s not because the author didn’t recognize that smoke might be a problem. It’s because they looked at that situation and said “Smoke. What kind of smoke? Wood? Burning Plastic? Sulfur? Some kinds are a lot more trouble than others. Just how thick? Is it mostly near the ceiling? Can you crawl under it? Is there a breeze? How hot? Is it toxic? Irritating? Indoors or outdoors? Is this at night? Is it worth bothering with a table for this? Everyone knows about various kinds of smoke – which means that we can safely leave this up to the game master. He or she can make a quick decision based on real-life experience and the exact situation in his or her game – and there won’t really be any “inconsistency” problem. The details of every situation are different, and thus so are the modifiers.

The tables started to multiply when players and game masters forgot that “thick smoke” might be the description, but it could mean something different every time.

There’s no such thing as a “Rules-Lite” role playing game, whether it’s “old school” or not. There are only games with their rules written out and games which rely extensively on the rules that are already in your head.

Games don’t include major chunks of rules on the behavior of cats and dogs, or about how knives work, or at what temperatures stone and iron melt – despite the fact that the domestication of cats and dogs, the uses of knives, and iron melting at a lower temperature than stone, have shaped civilization.

You don’t need to include rules for those things. The players can generally be relied on to have those rules in their heads already.

There’s another one of the keys to an old-school role playing game right there. It’s familiarity. An old-school game will want to keep itself grounded in real-world physics, biology, and mechanics. Any exceptions to those rules are likely to be carefully limited – and kept out of the player’s hands as much as possible. You’re a warrior? You might know a special magical trick or two – but most of your activities are going to fit into the real world fairly well. You may get some bonuses that push your performance up to the “action movie” level, but you’re still going to be doing things that a (tough and lucky) human conceivably could.

The horses and dogs will behave like real-world horses and dogs. The effectiveness of weapons is not generally going to depend on the enlightenment of your spirit and how long you spent meditating the day before. You will not be playing a blob of animated metal that can take almost any form. Those things all take us out into “lots and lots of rules” territory.

You’re a magician? You’re either going to have weak psychic “skills” or a rather small set of tricks with limited use. Why? Because too much of ANYTHING that doesn’t work in reality is going to disrupt the familiarity of the setting and generate more rules – which are a complicated pain to write.

Games aren’t novels. You don’t have the luxury of giving directions to all the characters. Your rules are going to have to deal with players who pick holes in the logic, try to exploit whatever loopholes you establish to the maximum, and who want to try things you didn’t think of. Worse, you’re not going to be there to answer them; they’re going to get to second-guess you all the way, since you have to write and publish your rules before most of your audience gets to play with them.

If you don’t keep it as close as possible to reality, you’re going to have to figure out how everything in your world works, explain it to the people trying to use the game, and anticipate their questions while still holding their interest in your explanations.

Good luck with that.

For the most part it’s best to go old school – and keep it close to reality.

Eclipse: The Codex Persona is available in a Freeware PDF Version, in Print, and in a Paid PDF Version that includes Eclipse II (245 pages of Eclipse races, character and ability builds, items, relics, martial arts, and other material) and the web expansion.


7 Responses

  1. I am not sure if you had intended to write what I think you have written. If you meant what I interpret, then I disagree.

    At any rate, I think the DMs who captivate their players do *not* keep close to reality, and do *not* give explanations – they give *choices*.

    “A game is a sequence of interesting choices,” as the saying goes.

    If the players feel that they have choices, they will play. If they feel railroaded, they will boot up the computer and do something other than tabletop gaming.

    Simulationism can be valuable if the players feel that the verisimilitude of the game world empowers them and makes their choices more meaningful.

    • Well lets see:

      Whatever your interpretation of what I wrote might be – which you have not actually stated – it’s fairly clear that it’s incorrect. After all:

      “Captivating your players” has nothing to do with the physics your setting runs under. Can you captivate your players in a game set in realms of dream, where their characters are sleeping psychics? Of course you can – but the natural laws of that setting are different from those of your 1920’s gangster game. If your 1920’s gangster announces that he wants to kill his enemies by going into their dreams and killing them there over and over until their hearts give out, the physics of the setting is going to say “you can’t do that; it doesn’t work in this setting”.

      “Keeping close to reality” is pretty simple too. If, in your setting, gravity varies every minute, people can shape tools and weapons out of air by whistling, everyone randomly changes their species at each full moon and eats metal out of mines, plants are migratory, and upset children’s dreams manifest as giant monsters out of the Godzilla movies, then you are going to be spending most of your writing time explaining – and most of your gaming time telling the players the things they want to do will not work as expected.

      “OK, you disarm him. He whistles sharply, and another blade appears in his hand”.

      “Sorry, you failed to hang on to something during your last action, and gravity just went to “sideways” at fifty times normal strength. You’re dead now”.

      Such a game is unlikely to last very long – and the rules system won’t sell.

      The only place “Explanations” appear is in the segment about writing games; it has nothing to do with running them. If, in your game, hanging around with animals shortly turns you into one, and yet your setting features herding cultures, you’ll need a really good explanation for that. If you don’t provide one, your rules will – quite rightfully – go into the trash can.

      A game does indeed include a series of interesting choices – and you can’t have interesting choices without physics. Without physics your “choices” include things like “my character ignores being dead” or “I appear on a different planet, in this situation” or “I stroll back in time and undo that”. Without restrictions and consequences, choices are meaningless.

      Now, “Railroading” is presumably it’s in reference to the one player who wanted to get a roll to hit with a 5% chance of success when throwing hand grenades at a target many thousands of miles away. That is, after all, the only “player choice” mentioned in the article.

      Now, the player was quite welcome to have his character throw grenades. He was NOT entitled to ask that the physics of the setting give him a chance to succeed at an impossible task. It that’s what you consider “Railroading”, then phrases like “No Frodo, you don’t get a roll to pick up the One Ring and throw it into Mount Doom from Rivendell; you’ll actually have to get within throwing distance” or “Sorry Batman, you just don’t have the strength to pick up Mount Everest even if you do roll a twenty” are also “Railroading”,

      Like it or not, any role-playing game is built on a core of simulationism. Without some sort of underlying “physics” you have chaos. Relying on pure abstract rules doesn’t work very well either. You CAN roleplay a chess game as a somewhat abstract war – and it’s an interesting exercise – but it’s not well-adapted to being a long-term role playing game.

  2. Okay, now I see that I had some disagreement with the way you referred to “reality.” That’s an English-style issue and it’s not relevant to your point.

    I’m not clear on the way you’re using “physics” in the comment versus the way you used “reality” in the original post.

    ‘If, in your setting, gravity varies every minute, people can shape tools and weapons out of air by whistling, everyone randomly changes their species at each full moon and eats metal out of mines, plants are migratory, and upset children’s dreams manifest as giant monsters out of the Godzilla movies, then you are going to be spending most of your writing time explaining ‘

    That setting doesn’t use fictional stereotypes. I was trying to make a minor distinction about fictional stereotypes, but the point I wanted to make doesn’t contradict anything you’ve written in your follow-up.

    • Well, “Reality” is simply referring to the currently observable universe. “Physics” refers to the rules that govern the behavior of the contents of a particular universe.

      We don’t yet (and possibly never will) have a full description of the physics of reality. Fortunately, most people are rarely concerned with exotic cases and the approximations we do have seem to work well enough in our lives. That’s good, because quite a lot of those approximations are built into our brains.

      Thus most settings include some fairly simple mechanics for bows – but those mechanics are always, in the few hundred systems I’ve seen, very high-order abstractions of the physics of the setting. The mere existence of a bow says a lot about the rules governing mass, inertia, gravitation (and its local strength), the structure of matter (the flexibility and energy-storing ability of a bow says a lot about the properties of materials in a setting), forces and leverage, kinetic energy, and more.

      If someone wants to do something weird with a bow, or is using one in a really exotic environment, the mechanics of the rules probably won’t cover it – and so game masters will need to fall back on the physics of the setting. That’s a lot easier for most game masters if most of the setting physics is pretty close to the physics they’re used to seeing in operation in reality.

      Now I have no objection to tinkering with the physics of a setting – there are various examples up on this site – but it does get complicated if you have players who like to experiment. For examples, here are some articles on the physics of the Star Trek universe, one on Elemental Physics (for a more mystical universe), and one on designing rules for sci-fi settings.

  3. By the way, my comment re “railroading” wasn’t meant to defend the player who wanted to do something improbable with a grenade. If I gave that impression, I apologize.

    • It’s not a worry. I fear I simply couldn’t figure out where else it might fit in. Ah, if only it had been merely improbable rather than physically impossible…

      Oh well. That player was also very upset when one of the other players mentioned “The Immortals Club” and told him (when he inquired) that his character really wasn’t qualified to join. He went on quite a rant about his characters heroic deeds and status – and never did quite get the point that “The Immortals Club” was an in-game investment program being run by a vampire banker. It was optimized for growth investments that would require many centuries to mature – so, since he’d selected a short-lived race, it really wouldn’t work for him.

  4. […] put up the first three articles in this series – defining why simulationist world-view is a vital part of old-school gaming, why such rules sets aren’t actually at all “simple”, and how the consequences of those […]

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