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.

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11 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 […]

  5. I… do feel obligated to say that the described scenario is a lot more complex than just “he’s crazy”. The DM does overrule reality, so upon hearing there’s “infinite range”, his assumptions, at least in part, make perfect sense. Don’t misunderstand, I would’ve handled it much the same way (and the “burning up in the atmosphere” part in particular is a very valid reason as to why it wouldn’t work), but…

    Him hitting with an object is theoretically possible, at least if we’re talking “nat 20 automatically hits”. That IS what attack rolls are there for. The DM can just take that out of the player’s hands (and I’d argue that at that point he’d also have to at least deal with a misschance and he’d need to declare the space where the base even IS, which I doubt he knows, but that’s not the point), but doing that is something that should be avoided as far as I’m concerned. It is… very hard, at least for me, to take a world seriously that is inconsistent to such a degree. Balance aside, it’d be hard for me to truly enjoy a game if I cannot rely on what the sheet says since that’s the only constant there is for interacting with the universe I, as a player, would have at my disposal.

    As an aside, there also flat out isn’t infinite range: There’s gravity that near to a planet, the interstellar medium isn’t really empty so there’s friction, there’s radiation pressure and even if there never would be a collision with what’s out there, there’d by dynamic friction, so… Infinite range is pretty much as unrealistic as his actions.

    That is why a lot of simulationist games are incredibly simplified. Often for good reason, lest you have to calculate for weather conditions, range, footing and exerted strength on the bow everytime you want to put an arrow in someone, which would slow the game down to an absolute crawl to the point where it’s not that much fun to play. I have not much of an idea on how you would even put something like that down on a sheet.

    I’m not saying anything against this article, it’s just… A DM is given almost limitless power, so his words are the word of god. Making fun of a player who then goes to do something that appears to make sense just leaves a bad feeling in my mouth.
    I mean, we’re normally told to ignore RAW, the reality of that universe, if the DM disagrees with it. Why that would be different in that case seems very unclear.

    • Actually…

      1) You did not get a roll to hit with a projectile weapon against a target who’s location was unknown, regardless of whether or not it was within range. You were required to be able to aim at your target to get an attack roll. He’d have known that if he’d actually looked at the combat rules.

      2) As noted, it was first edition style. You did not automatically hit on a “20”. “20” did repeat six times on the attack tables. The first time it meant “Total of 20”. The second thorough sixth time it meant “Natural 20”. The table then went on with numbers above that – which meant “Natural 20 and a minimum bonus”. A “Natural 20” on a valid attack check would usually hit – but it was not a sure thing. Again, the player hadn’t actually read the rules.

      3) The rules also stated that, when discharging missiles into a group, the target was selected randomly according to a roll weighted by the size of the creatures in the group. Thus, even if the rules had allowed him a roll to hit, and he had gotten a natural 20, that would only have meant a likely hit on a randomly selected creature on the planet. He hadn’t read that bit either.

      4) Passing by that basic ignorance of the combat rules, infinite range in space would no longer apply after a projectile entered the planetary atmosphere and was no longer in space. He didn’t think about that either. (Also, to be technical… Grenades fell under “Grenade-Like Weapons”, not “Projectile Weapons”, so statements about projectile ranges did not apply if you’re going by “RAW”). After all, “infinite range” does not mean that something travels in a constant speed or in a straight line. Arrows do not travel in straight lines or at constant speed either – which was why you could arch them over obstacles until third edition started putting in rules about line of sight. Infinite Range simply means that something would continue going until stopped.

      5) Given that the player had not read the combat rules, it was no surprise that he’d completely ignored the other sourcebooks on the rulebook shelf – a selection of volumes on physics, chemistry, nature, biology, weaponry, animals, and herbs, a history of fortification, an encyclopedia of mythology, a dictionary of architecture, and the Foxfire books – along with an encyclopedia of magical herbs, several reprinted medieval grimoires, bullfinches mythology, an encyclopedia of magical gems and minerals, and a handbook of ritual magic – all of them there to let us look things up when the basic rules did not cover something (and all of them save a few that have been replaced still on my game reference shelves, better than thirty years later). Thus, for example, when we’d wanted to know the sustained travel speed of a Blue Whale, we could look it up. He was quite wrong about their being no rules for velocities, vectors, or orbits; they were right there in the physics books.

      For another example… when the expected lifespan of his Komodo Dragon Fey (with a hyperspace link that provided a selection of augmentations and vulnerabilities) came up, we simply looked up the Komodo Dragon life expectancy, applied the metabolic adjustments, and figured it out. That later became important when another player mentioned “The Immortals Club” (see the comments above).

      He also insisted on playing a mage, but refused to read anything about his spells beyond the one-sentence quick spell descriptions. He then became indignant when his spells often did not work as he wanted them to – but that is neither here not there.

      6) His belief that projectiles hit “at the end of the user;s action” wasn’t actually a part of the rules either; In first edition everyone acted on initiative counts modified by weapon speeds and other factors; the basic rules never actually addressed how long projectiles took to cross a given distance. It was just that – with one minute melee rounds – it normally did not matter. If something that the basic rulebooks did not mention suddenly did matter… that was what the reference books were for.

      7) Finally, of course, he was attempting to act on player knowledge, not what the character actually knew. That was why many of the other players had had their characters invest in things like “Magic Theory”, “Physics”, or “Ship Operation”.. His character knew nothing about space. The character didn’t know how to put a spacesuit on and did not consider the problems involved in trying to pull a grenade pin with space gloves on either, but I let him skip past that.

      He got an explanation because he demanded one – and it focused on the physics because – since he lived in a world run by physics and was old enough to have taken required science courses in school – it seemed like he might already know the basics of that, while he blatantly did not know the basics of the combat rules. That’s also why the rest of the players looked at him like he was crazy; they found it hard to believe that he could be that ignorant, and thus felt that he was purposefully trying to cheat in a way which obviously would not work.

      Now none of that was really relevant, since the purpose here was to help illustrate the difference between the simulationist and gamist approaches, not just to demonstrate that that particular player never actually paid any attention to the rules or what was going on – but since you asked there’s no reason not to explain.

      Now, people write up their own character sheets. You really can’t rely on “what the sheet says” unless you include all relevant rules, modifiers, and special cases on it, including all possible circumstantial rulings (and having complete knowledge of every situation) – pretty much copying out every book or source used in the game and spending a lot of time talking to the game master. Even in later editions, where there were much more extensive attempts to codify everything, the game master is still free to assign modifiers or simply inform you that – for reasons that neither you nor your character know – something does not work. You don’t necessarily get to know that the target has a “wind wall” spell going – just that you missed because the arrow suddenly went off-course.

      Role playing games with live game masters rely on the physics engine built into the game master and players brains. They don’t specify the melting point of iron, that you can make an impression of something by pushing it against some wax, or how making rope works. You get a modifier for “weather conditions, range, and footing” every time you want to put an arrow in someone when the game master says “In this weather? That’s a -6!”. No, it won’t be the same every time. It doesn’t have to be. Circumstances are always different.

      I have often had players take years to figure out what was going on and why some things did and did not work. (For a good example of that look at the Star Wars logs. It took almost a hundred sessions for the players to figure out why research into the “antiforce” was being blocked).

      To see the difference… the d20 rules state that a sling has a maximum range, beyond which you have no chance of hitting. So I go to twenty feet past that range above ground, and sling a rock down in an attempt to hit the planet. RAW; I cannot hit the planet since it is beyond the maximum range – yet I doubt that any game master would agree with that result.

      The d20 “Drown yourself back to life” routine does not work either unless your game master is really silly – no matter what RAW says.

      That’s a good thing. You’re playing a character living in a fantasy world, not a chess piece moving through a board with all the modifiers printed on each square. Your character does not know all the rules, or even as much of them as the player does. That’s why “Metagaming” and “out of player knowledge” are considered forms of cheating.

      The player does not know all the circumstances, and usually does not fully understand the setting – which is why events in the game may not play out the way the player expects them to either. “RAW” is for abstract theory discussions and computer games, not for actual play with a game master. It’s “But I have ten pounds of apples, and there’s nothing about peels or cores in the rules, so I should get ten pounds of apple sauce!”. RAW may not mention peels or cores, but – if the exact amount of apple sauce should matter for some reason – it is the game masters job to remember them and throw in a modifier. He or she doesn’t have to explain – but if he or she does… arguing over it is pointless. Gaming is a social activity. If you feel the need to argue, then the game is not working for you. If it’s working for others, there’s no reason to disrupt that; it’s much more polite to just look for a game that you don’t feel like arguing about.

      What the example player wanted to do did not make sense under any version of the rules, doubly so since the game ran on physics – which rules were right there on the source material shelf. If I were making fun of him, I would have pointed this out in the original article.

      • Sorry, I should’ve read twice as opposed to assuming that. It just reminded me of… Bad situations on different tables I was at, so I jumped to a bad conlcusion.

        Again, sorry.

      • Oh, it’s not a worry. While that particular player didn’t actually understand the rules at all well, he was my best example for illustrating the attitude that “based on my reading of the wording of the rules this is wrong, and I’m not going to let the game proceed until everyone acknowledges that!”.

        I’ve never actually had to deal with that attitude much; my games have always run on a basis of “here is how that ability works and here is what you know about the situation and the external influences currently in play. What are you trying to do?” rather than the “We are making moves on a chessboard and we have fairly complete information”. The rules on Introspection are a fairly good example of that I think. If I don’t allow anything in a setting until I’m ready to describe how it works on request (it comes of getting started playing with a Physicist-Engineer and a Technical Librarian).

        And that is why my selection of examples to use to illustrate the point was fairly limited.

        Of course, from my point of view, a player attempting to use a “Rules As Written” argument during a session is attempting a social version of executing a denial-of-service attack on a World Of Warcraft server out of pique at how something went. A player doesn’t like something and so is making an out-of-character (after all, the character certainly does not get to read the rule books) attempt to occupy the game master – and thus keep anyone else from playing – until he or she is satisfied. That’s why the place for RAW arguments has always been “save it for after the game and see if you can’t calmly persuade the game master to handle it differently next time”. That’s been standard advice since Gary Gygax started things.

        Gary was wrong about a lot of things, but he definitely had some good insights at times. So no need to be sorry; it was a good question and brought up a lot of details that could use clarifying!

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