Role-playing games (RPGs) are very diverse. Among them, two large groups can be distinguished: simulative and narrative systems. Not every RPG can be easily attributed into one of those groups. In this text I will describe the differences between them.
[UPDATE: RPG division described in this text is based on my experience. There are other, perhaps much better classifications. At the end of the text I added a more extensive explanation.]
Simulative systems are as old as RPG, which have evolved from wargames, whose essence was to simulate battles. In wargames, it is very important to simulate every move of individual military units – what distance they travel, at what time, which enemy units are within their range, what exact damage the unit inflicted on the enemy and what damage was inflicted on the unit. The first role-playing games were based on a similar idea, but on decreased scale: players were no longer controlling entire armies, but only single heroes.
This heritage is still visible in modern simulative systems, such as D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) and Warhammer Fantasy Role Play. Their characteristic features include:
- Significant part of the rules concerns fighting.
- The rules cover issues such as the distance that a character can make in one round, the range of weapons and spells, the amount of ammunition, cover, character encumbrance.
- Using a tactical grid and figures/tokens reflecting the position of heroes and opponents is necessary, or at least highly recommended, if you want to play strictly according to the rules (RAW – Rules as Written).
- Dice are often rolled during the game. The effects of the roll are closely related to the attempt to make a specific action. If the roll failed, the character could not achieve what they intended.
- Usually it takes much time to resolve a fight RAW.
- During the fight, players usually try to use their characters in the most effective way, that is, one that will do the greatest possible damage to the opponent while minimizing the risk for the player’s character.
- Price, weight and properties of various equipment are usually detailed.
- Usually, character creation is at least partially random, an example is rolling for six main attributes in D&D. Sometimes, the random element also occurs during the character’s development, like in D&D, where you have to roll to check how many health points you get while levelling up.
- To make the character more effective in the fight, a player can try optimization, that is, careful selection of various elements (race, class, abilities, equipment) during character’s creation and development.
- As the consequence of the above, the game authors and Game Masters tend to care about balance and preventing the selection of some races or professions as “ineffective”.
Polish cover of D&D 3 ed. – my first RPG! Source: http://www.wtrakciegry.pl/dungeon-and-dragons-dd
It’s no coincidence that I used the term RAW above. From my experience, simulative games are rarely played RAW: many people do not use tactical grid, they ignore the rules of distance and range, etc. Such people can have much more fun playing narrative system. Let’s look at this second group. I consider FU (Freeform Universal RPG), Fate, Dogs in the Vineyard, Ironsworn and all PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse) games, including the aforementioned SCUP, to be representatives of narrative systems. Their characteristic features:
- The rules are much more abstract. Issues such as distance, range or encumbrance are omitted or at least significantly simplified compared to simulative games.
- Using a tactical grid or figures is not necessary. Fate uses much more abstract zones instead.
- In many narrative systems, GM does not roll dice at all. During fights, it is assumed that the character’s success means an automatic fail of their opponent and vice versa.
- The effects of dice roll do not have to be closely related to an attempt to perform a specific action. If the roll fails, the character can still achieve what they intended, but at the same time the GM can introduce complications not directly related to the character’s action. An example used by Shawn Tomkin, the author of Ironsworn, in this discussion: if the hero tries to track down the monster, but the roll is failed, it does not necessarily mean losing the trail. Instead, the hero can discover something that makes their situation more dangerous or complicated. For example, that someone from their tribe works in concert with the monster.
- Equipment rules are simpler and more abstract. In many cases the exact amount of gold pieces (or other currency) is irrelevant and it’s not recorded on character sheet. Abstract Wealth Points or Resource Points are sometimes used instead. Similarly, the exact number of arrows or missiles is not recorded.
- As a result of the above, the number of dice rolls is much smaller, and the fights are resolved much faster than in case of simulative games. Player characters can (and should!) perform spectacular action such as swinging on a chandelier like Robin Hood. The rules of many narrative games reward this type of creativity, which makes it more “profitable” than simple slashing enemies with the sword or burning them with the fireball. I remember that during one Warhammer session one of the players had creative ideas like throwing mugs in opponents or nailing their hands to the table with a dagger. Unfortunately, the Game Master had a serious problem translating these actions into the game rules, so their effectiveness was very low. If we played FU, the same actions could have a significant impact on the outcome of the fight. I do not blame our GM, I blame Warhammer’s rules for not supporting this type of creativity.
- Character creation and development usually don’t contain random elements.
- Most narrative games assume that players are not interested in the so-called powergaming, i.e. their goal is not to create the most powerful character, but to create the most interesting and dramatic story. As a result, the authors of these games usually do not care much about the balance. This was nicely presented in this review of the Dogs in the Vineyard: „[In the rulebook] there’s not much guidance for what makes a reasonable trait… so we had one player who took “I love to settle things by talking” at 3d10 and pretty much wanted to apply that trait to every single verbal conflict. Since every time he gets an advancement he could bump that up by a die, it could easily reach 6d10 or more [which makes a character invincible in verbal conflict] in just a couple of sessions. So, honestly, if game balance is a major concern for you, you’ll probably want to dump the system and use your favorite set of rules instead… or add a ton of house rules about what sort of traits are acceptable and which ones you can improve.”
- The same applies to many other narrative systems, with the exception of PbtA games. In their case, during the character creation and development, you choose abilities instead of inventing them on their own. Thus, PbtA games are more “powergaming resistant” than other narrative games.
I have been playing RPG since 2004, but it was only in 2017 that I came across narrative systems and I became their fan almost immediately. Why? In my opinion, the essence of any RPG is creating an interesting story by the Game Master and players. In case of simulative systems played RAW, significant part of this story will likely be about exploration, fighting and acquiring treasures and new skills. Narrative games make it easier for players to create stories full of other elements as well. Of course, creating a wonderful and diverse story using the simulative system is possible, but it is more difficult than in the case of narrative systems.
Awareness of the differences between simulative and narrative systems is very important. During my first unsuccessful attempt to lead the “Bronze and Iron” (one year before “A quest for the statue of Poseidon“), one of the players, used to D&D, wanted the warrior he created had more than one attack per round. I was unable to explain that FU does not use such categories as the “number of attacks per round”. Our expectations turned out to be extremely different.
The habits stemming from simulative games are very strong. Although I prefer narrative games myself for a few years, I still have a tendency to use solutions typical to simulative games.
It also seems to me that despite much more extensive rules, simulative games are more natural for people new to RPGs, especially if they played video RPGs before, such as Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, Skyrim or The Witcher. It’s easier to explain to the beginner what does “Your character has 20 gold pieces in a purse and 30 arrows in a quiver” mean than “Your character has 2 Resource Points” or even more radical, “Your character has any item that you think is appropriate”. Such players may have a tendency to have their character hoard every possible item.
Many players also find it easier to choose from a closed list of skills (swimming, shooting, persuasion, etc.) than to create their character’s Aspects (Fate), Attributes (FU) or Traits (Dogs in the Vineyard). If you want to lead a narrative system to people unfamiliar with them, it is worth showing them some ready-made characters and explain their strengths and weaknesses. Before the “Quest for the statue of Poseidon” I created several archetypes (warrior, sailor, hunter, craftsman, artist). Of the four players, the two created characters strongly based on these archetypes, and only one player created a character completely unlike any archetype. Note that I did not impose ready-made characters on players, but only used them as examples.
Despite these difficulties, I firmly believe that it is worth trying both types of systems. Perhaps tactical thinking how to defeat a strong opponent in D&D will become your thing. The discovery that an apparently invincible enemy can be defeated through the ingenious use of a combination of spells and abilities can be very satisfactory. Or maybe, like me, you will find that combat in simulative systems is too tedious and steer towards narrative systems instead.
The original version of this text (i.e. what is above) has aroused some controversy among my friends. Other divisions were mentioned, especially GNS theory. So I decided to clarify a few issues.
The division of role-playing games proposed in this text was based on my experience, namely:
- I have observed many similarities between WFRP 2 ed. (Warhammer Fantasy Role Play 2 edition), D&D (3rd, 4th and 5th editions), Star Wars D20, Mazes and Minotaurs, LotFP (Legacy of the Fallen Princess), Shinobi & Samurai and The Black Hack.
- I’ve noticed many similarities between FU (Freeform Universal RPG), Fate, PbtA games, Ironsworn, Dogs in the Vineyard, 7th Sea (2nd edition), Lady Blackbird and Blades in the Dark.
- I have observed numerous differences between the two above-mentioned groups. Of course, I realized that there are games that cannot be easily classified into one of these categories (which I clearly wrote in the second sentence of the original text). I played at least two such “ambiguous” systems, namely the Call of Cthulhu and OHET, which was once mentioned on my blog. I decided, however, to omit them in my considerations, which did not pretend to be an exhaustive classification of all RPGs.
- For the needs of the text, I needed to give names to both groups of RPGs. I met with the term “narrative games” used in relation to FU, Ironsworn etc. so I decided to stick with that term. Naming the first group (D&D etc.) was much more difficult. I got the impression that most of those games are “spiritual heirs” of wargames, whose essence is to simulate battles. In the absence of better ideas, I therefore decided to name them as “simulative games”. Perhaps I should have used the terms “traditional systems” and “indie games” instead of “simulative” and “narrative”, to avoid associations with GNS. But now it’s probably too late to replace these names in the whole text.
Why did I write this text at all?
According to my observations, for many players (especially beginners), RPG equals D&D (or Warhammer). At the same time, I noticed that many teams use house rules, usually aimed at simplifying or speeding up fights. Since I experienced fatigue on many occasions during fights in Warhammer (but also in D&D 3 ed. at high levels), I wanted to narrative games to the players with similar feelings as an alternative. However, I could not rule out the existence of players who have only played narrative games so far – for those people traditional systems can be a refreshing and inspiring variety. I did not want to write “Your favorite games are boring, better play something else!”. I did not want to write about pure theory, either – instead, I preferred to show the characteristic features of both kinds of games.
I hope that these explanations will improve the readers’ opinion on this text. I am also open for further discussion 🙂
I also invite you to my fanpage! In addition to information about new posts, I plan to share curiosities about games, books and of course, castles.
My other posts about RPG:
- “CSI: Novigrad” – a non-linear investigation scenario set in the Witcher universe, designed for Fate Accelerated, and a report from the session based on it,
- analysis of simulative and narrative RPGs;
- review of four RPGs about factions and intrigue;
- report from “The Sword, the Crown and the Unspeakabler Power” session (one of the systems reviewed in the above post),
- report from adventure in Temeria (and Game Master’s point of view) and its continuation set in Vizima,
- report from adventure in Mythic Greece and its continuation,
- report from “Dogs in the Vineyard” session;
- my RPG summary of 2018; 2019 and 2020.