Sunday, June 16, 2013

The abstraction horizon, a point of no return for simulationists d20?

At what point does abstract become simulationist? What distinguishes something simulationist from something abstract? More so, given the core CPU in a tabletop RPGs is our brain and it's quite slow compared to a computer, can we call an RPG simulationist when compared to a video game? Compared to those, any tabletop RPG feels pretty darn abstract!

Abstract and simulationist games are usually placed on opposite sides of the scale, but do they belong there? Is abstract the opposite of simulationist? I believe it isn't. In this blog post I will defend the idea that rules light and rules heavy games can be product of the same abstraction level,. That the quest for more detail adds rule complexity, but not necessarily less abstraction and more realism. That "simulationist" games, if there is such a thing in tabletop RPG, can be attained with equivalent abstraction, but using a better crafted model.

Lets take a look at the following statement :

"Abstractions may be formed by reducing the information content of a concept or an observable phenomenon, typically to retain only information which is relevant for a particular purpose." (1)

By this statement all tabletop RPGs are abstract. Some do put more math into play, but there's a limit to this given the computational power of our brain as compared to a computer. Particularly since this is meant to be a hobby and not work.

Now lets take a look at the following statement:

Abstraction uses a strategy of simplification, wherein formerly concrete details are left ambiguous, vague, or undefined; thus effective communication about things in the abstract requires an intuitive or common experience between the communicator and the communication recipient. This is true for all verbal/abstract communication. (2)

What's important to point out here is that both communicator and the recipient must have an "intuitive or common experience" for effective abstract communication. That means that either the abstraction is such that both intuitively interpret it the same or both know the "rules" of the abstraction so well there is no ambiguity in their interpretation (common experience).

Abstraction requires a certain amount of common understanding among players of what is being abstracted. That way the communicator and the recipients can fill in the gaps left by the abstraction process. That is, players fill in the details of the gaps left by the rules (aka abstraction process). Theoretically the larger the rules the less gaps the players should have to fill in.

Considering this, "simulationist" is commonly seen as the product of a process where we begin to fill more and more "information" or "detail" in a game, so less is left in the player's hands. We begin to call it a "simulationst" game one in which there are rules to arrive at greater detail. For example having 10 hit points and taking 4 in an attack is considered "abstract". While taking 4 hit points piercing damage to the head causing an arm wound is "simulationist". As simulationist players we seek to add more detail into a game when once there was a greater lack of it. There's a border, a horizon, after which we begin to call something simulationist. But what is this? The amount of detail or the amount of time required to resolve such detail? It certainly isn't realism as many games have lots of detail which aren't very real. For example the way bows and arrows work in D&D, which seem "real", but are very distant from real bows and arrows work.

Our brains are awfully slow compared to computers in regards to the amount of detail we can mathematically resolve. So we're limited in detail if we're looking for "fun" in a game. Unless you define "fun" as doing a hundred triple integrals to figure out if a sword hits or not. This sets an implicit and quite subjective limit to what players are willing to put up with in the name of fun.

Yet in this struggle between abstract and simulationist we fail to ask a key question about the model (the way something is represented, the "strategy of simplification"). Is the model we are using good?

What happens when we try to take a model from the realm of the abstract to the world of the simulationist without considering this? What is this in the first place? Well basically, there's reality, then we take detail away to make an abstraction and then we try to put it back again through "simulationist" rules.

To answer this lets look at what has gone on with D&D because they're trying to do this exactly. Add more detail (be more simulationist) on top of a basic set of rules which disregarded such detail in the first place. One such example is D&D's and d20 system's hit points. What are they? Life? Skill? Luck? A mixture of all three? Another example is the to hit roll. What is it? If you succeed with a hit roll, what does that mean? A hit? A hit that does damage?

Look at it like this. Back in the '70s a game builds an abstraction of combat based on rolling a d20. It has classes and hit points and a value called THAC0 that "improves" as the level of the character is increased. It was simple and fun to play. You roll the d20, hit or miss. If you hit you roll damage and if the creature reaches 0 hit points its dead. It was simple and it was fun.

With time players got more demanding and more stuff was added. Wound rules, skill rules, more and more detail. In a quest to become more simulationist more rules were added to reinject the information that had been removed by the initial abstraction process. These rules added more detail, but not necessarily more realism. Many rules that add detail to D&D today are questionably realistic.

But, there is information that once removed to achieve an abstraction can not be easily reinserted.

At what point did the game developers stop and consider the original abstraction? If the original abstraction was remade to remove less information in the first place then less information would need to be reinjected, leading to simpler rules. This would have meant a leaner, rules light AD&D. But it was not done. Instead layer upon layer of rules are added, editions built on top of editions. The latest of which trying to group together the best of all prior editions in a quest for a game for all.

Let us go back to what I pointed out as important. What's important to point out is that both communicator and the recipient must have an "intuitive or common experience" for effective abstract communication. Intuitive? Common experience?

For a moment let us see "intuitive" as OSR and "common experience" as rules heavy. The OSR sticks to the simple rules and understands how the game is played. They don't need complex rules because they understand the game intuitively. On the other hand "common experience" is the rules heavy player. For there is no other way to have people enjoy a common experience when they're geographically disperse and have never met. By writing rule upon rule you have a mechanism for many players who never met to have a "common experience" around a game. The rules convey the same experience to all players as long as they stick to the rules. By creating a modular system in D&D Next WotC seeks to customize this "common experience" for different market segments, but fails to address the underlying issue. The problem is not with the rules, those are the symptoms, the problem is with the abstraction in the first place.

This opens a new way to look at rules light and rules heavy. Rules light is not a product of high abstraction while rules heavy is a product of low abstraction. They're product of how the same abstraction is conveyed to different groups of people. Simulationist isn't opposite to abstract, it's not even on the same slider bar.

Simulationist or realistic are terms achieved not by less abstraction. All RPGs are by definition abstractions as they lack the full detail of the real life objects they are trying to represent. Simulationist or realistic are achieved by better models, better "strategies of simplification". Such models convey the abstraction in a more intuitive way to players and thus allow more detail to be "recreated" in the player's minds without the need of extensive rules (quicker). This greater detail is after all what players look for when questing for a realistic or simulationist game.

Why go beyond the abstraction horizon when you'll have to walk back the simulationist road to reconstitute lost detail? Isn't it better to build a game that is abstract, realistic and rules light at the same time by using a abstraction that holds on to the detail wanted by the players?

For example breaking the to hit roll into a two rolls, one to determine if weapon contact is made and another to determine if actual damage is done allows skill to be easily applied to the first roll. Removing some of the ambiguity involved in the classic d20 roll. When I "miss" did I hit and cause no damage due to armor protection or did I simply not hit the armor at all?

Thus it's my strong belief that you can build and abstract, simulationist and rules light game if the abstraction is well made. That is, abstract enough to enable fast play, but not so abstract that too much detail is lost.


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