Simulating Genre vs. Emulating Genre

Over at Critical Hits, Dave Chalker laments:

  • Unfortunately, there always seemed to be a wall that our campaigns hit, and has made us reluctant to pick up another superhero game in many years. While discussing the issue and attempting to settle on a new system, The Main Event and I hit on the core of our problem, and we dubbed it “The Professor X Paradox.” You see, take a typical party. You’re likely to have a wide range of different kinds of heroes in your group. To take some iconic examples, let’s say your party has the Incredible Hulk, Cyclops, and Professor X. Now let’s say, as what often happens in an RPG and in superhero stories, the party gets into a fight. You want to have a challenge for the party members, so you have a brute ala Abomination. Now, for the Hulk, this is an interesting fight. And Cyclops might be able to help out too. But for Professor X, either he’s going to completely take over the Abomination with mind powers and have him pose no threat, or he’s going to get obliterated by one punch from Abomination. Basically, the Hulk’s scale of toughness is so beyond a normal human’s that if you ever have a normal human in the fray, he’s likely to be killed if he happens to get involved in the fray.

My comment was:

There’s actually a fairly simple solution to that problem, that works with any system.

How do teams in the comics that consist of relatively normal guys with no armor or super-reflexes, like Cyclops, coexist with tanks like Colossus? The writer just grants script immunity to the weaker characters. If the Abomination attacks Colossus, he can land a punch, if he attacks Cyclops, he can’t. He might stun him with a near miss, or bury him in rubble, but he’ll never just splat him (unless Warren Ellis is writing it as a joke on the readers).

So grant script immunity to your supers characters. Just rule that if one of the heavy-hitter’s attacks actually lands on a non-tank, the GM decides what happens. What happens can range from being a complete miss, to being momentarily stunned, to being taken out of the fight until helped (rubble lifted to reveal that through luck or skill he has managed to create a safe pocket), to being taken out of the fight entirely. If you apply this equally to PCs attacked by heavy-hitter NPCs and PC heavy hitters attacking weaker NPCs, the PCs will even learn to stick to genre and have their Colossus character stick to attacking the Juggernaut instead of trying to one-shot Black Tom all the time

I’d like to elaborate on that though a bit, and what it means to try to simulate a genre instead of emulating it, and why I think it can be a big mistake.

Gamers are often trying to recreate the feel of certain kinds of genre fiction; indeed that may be the biggest thing that drew them to RPGs in the first place, the idea of what playing out what it would be like to be Indiana Jones, Conan, Sam Spade, or Spider-Man.  The problem they then run into is that the genres have recognizable tropes that they wish to occur in their games, but in fiction the tropes are there because the author put them there, and the tropes only “work” (yield a genre-conformant result) because the author is careful not to misapply them or subject them to too much scrutiny.  Players are not so careful, nor generally would you want them to be, because that care requires thinking about things as an author instead of as a character or player.

When it comes time to reproduce these tropes in the game, there are two basic approaches, which I’ll call “simulation” and “emulation.”  The goal of both is to have genre tropes work in the game, but the process is different.  Simulation attempts to make the tropes arise “naturally” or “organically” out of the rules of the game (sometimes conceived of as the laws of the gameworld); the tropes will, the players hope, occur as the emergent behavior of rules not specifically aimed at reproducing the tropes.  Emulation is concerned just that the tropes occur, by any means necessary.  Most attempts at genre games use some combination of the the approaches, though I think that simulation is seen as more elegant and generally preferable.

As a crude example, suppose you were designing a James Bond-style super-spy game.  It’s a feature of the movies that the villain always explains his fiendish plot to the hero.  The emulation approach would be for the GM to have the villain explain his plot, because that’s what villains in the genre do.  A more simulation approach would be to create a disadvantage (say, “Monologues”) which would grant extra build-points for creating the villain if he took it.  An even more simulation approach (in that it’s one that the villain as character could be aware of and trying to manipulate) would be to have it that the rules of that reality are such that the villain gains extra status or a greater chance of succeeding the more times he can explain his plot to a helpless hero.

In Emulation, making the trope happen is the rule.  In Simulation, the trope is a side-effect some other rule and the more generally applicable the rule is (the less obviously the rule exists merely to justify the side-effect), the better.

A more subtle example might be to change the combat bonus that people have for ganging up on a lone foe to no effect, or even a penalty for getting in each others’ way, in order to better simulate a Jackie Chan-style martial arts movie.  The Emulation approach to that might be to have a rule that flat out forbids multiple opponents from scoring a hit on a single fighter; since it never happens that he’s overwhelmed by numbers, shading the probabilities in his favor may help, but may still result in a genre-busting defeat.

And this leads to why I think it’s often a mistake to try and simulate your way into a genre-compatible result when you could just emulate it.  Simulations usually work by trying to create or tweak generally applicable rules so that “good” genre results are more likely…but more likely isn’t the same as certain.  If some things are required or forbidden by the genre and all you do is adjust the probabilities, sooner or later you will get a genre-busting result.  Dave talks about one such result in his supers campaign: his super-speedster, who only needed to avoid rolling an 18 on 3d6 in order to avoid a Hulk-sized attack that would splatter him completely if it landed, rolled an 18.  This busted the genre for them, and led to them abandoning the campaign and eventually trying to even play super-hero genre systems because they couldn’t guarantee against similar results.

The problem his group is experiencing, in my opinion, isn’t that the system has trouble handling characters of different scales of power (the Professor X Paradox)…it’s that the system allows non-genre results in the first place.  If you’re playing a four color supers game, even if you required all the characters to be of roughly equal toughness (maybe you’re playing an all-powered armor Iron Man squad)…it would still be a genre-busting mistake if one of your characters could die because of a bad die roll.  But getting simulations to refuse to cough up non-genre results is incredibly tricky, and the more you want to hide the fact that you’re directly encoding genre assumptions (wearing glasses is a +20 to your disguise roll, only for purposes of concealing your secret identity), the trickier it gets.

On the other hand, it’s really quite easy for any GM and players familiar with the genre they’re playing to emulate it by disregarding or overriding non-genre results.  Certainly it’s helpful if most of the time, the system yields answers compatible with the genre…I’m not saying that system doesn’t matter at all, or systemless is the only way to do good genre games, but if you have a system that yields a half-way decent simulation it costs you almost no time, effort, or immersion for the GM to be ready to overrule that 1 in 316 chance in order to emulate the genre you’re all trying to play.