For sim vs em, if you’re getting tripped up by words like “simulation” or “realism,” you might benefit from reconceiving the axis as “internalist” vs “externalist” or as “Watsonian” vs “Doyelsian.”

Eg, who would win, the Enterprise or the Death Star?

Internalist/Watsonian: “The Death Star is able to dock many Star Destroyers, each of which as capital ships seem roughly equivalent to the Enterprise, so the Death Star would win” or “the Enterprise can target torpedos in a way that we know can destroy the Death Star, so the Enterprise would win”

Externalist/Doyelsian: “The Enterprise are the good guys so they would win” or “we’re imagining this at the end of the second act, so we’ll have the Death Star win to build tension”

Note that an internalist might bring up complicated mathematical arguments (I’m sure they have on this exact question many times) but as in the above they don’t really need to.

“Neither, because the Death Star and Enterprise don’t really exist” obviously isn’t an ultra-internalist position but instead a rejection of the premise entirely. (Which is fine - maybe you want to talk about politics or basketball instead.)

YourDie has brought up what simulationism or internalism looks like from a player perspective and your comment on OSR neutral refereeing describes what this looks like from a GM perspective. (For some especially lucid writing on the latter I recommend Sandra from idiondrotting on “blorb principles” and “three tiers of truth.”) Note that these don’t have to align... What John Bell calls “trad” or what I think of as “high 90s illusionism” involves players immersing themselves in the viewpoint of their PCs while the GM manipulates things behind the scenes to produce a satisfying narrative.

Final thought, maybe obvious - a lot of these are often really more manifested by play procedure than by rules “as designed,” especially for less focused games. Basically nothing in the D&D 5e rules dictates on the player side that you view your character as a story character vs viewpoint avatar vs game pawn, and on the DM side you have basically the same flexibility in terms of what requires a skill check and what the DCs are (which is basically the whole system, at least outside of combat.)

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Feb 19, 2023Liked by Thomas M

I love your Hot vs Cool axis! I think it defines something that has bothered me since I started running Story Games. I don't know if this was part of what you had in mind, but it works for me.

Most role-players are D&D players (and DMs). Therefore, they likely have only experienced the Cool-er side of RPGs (I think this applies equally to World of Darkness players, maybe more so). Speaking in-character at a D&D table may be good or iffy depending on the group, but getting Hot is usually discouraged. I once had my character make a stand at a bridge that resulted in his death. I thought it was a cool way to go, but his decision was clearly hot. The other players were actually distressed when my character died and tried to come up with all the ways to bring him back or otherwise change the outcome. Character death in D&D is NOT COOL, even in a heroic sacrifice that is very much a part of the fantasy genre D&D is rooted in.

So when you try to get D&D players to try a Hot game, something centered around emotional stakes and character death/ruin like Fiasco (also, poor impulse control is very uncool), they are often out of their element. I used to think it was because most D&D players aren't interested in actually, you know, role-playing, but that was probably unfair. They are just on the Cool end of the spectrum and weren't ready for the shock of diving into the Hot tub. I think the reverse is true for me because I haven't been able to go back to D&D - that water is too Cool and I'm staying in the Hot tub until I prune! Whereas lots of gamers will happily go back and forth for quick dips in each.

From what I've seen, DMs/GMs are usually more adaptable. They spend a lot of game time portraying very emotional and uncool NPCs for the cool PCs to react to. For players, maybe more could enjoy Hot RPGs if this important difference were explained to them up front? There will always be naturally cool players that don't want any emotional risk to their characters (they mostly play bounty hunters, necromancers, and vampires) just like there will always be Hot players like a friend of mine that played the Battlestar Galactica board game in character (only the Cylons at the table were pleased).

Anyway, I didn't have the right words for this before, so thank you very much! I think this could be very helpful to me (and others) in the future. I look forward to you future posts on this topic!

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Congratulations on hitting 3K, Thomas! As a long time reader, it’s exciting to watch how your newsletter has grown.

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Feb 20, 2023Liked by Thomas M

What a great article! I think Wide vs Focused as they originally proposed it is more about character progression, i.e., the way that D&D and DCC get more fun after you’ve advanced a few levels and the game gets less deadly for PCs. BRP is also like this, or any “zero to hero” game … I associate this tendency more with trad games. D&D might even get _less_ fun when you get too high in levels, when it’s hard to find a worthy threat. PbtA games are fun early in the character’s progression, but if you advance enough to make all your stats at least +2, you mostly stop rolling misses, and the mechanics of some PbtA games can break down. I know there are a lot of PbtA and BoB games that have very shallow progression arcs and so avoid this issue … and Night Witches, for example, balances its upward progression with a brutal progression of scars … I’m sure there are plenty of others, and I’m just blanking on them. Having said all that, I like the spectrum you’ve made of games that work better for specific characters vs a wide array of character types; it’s fascinating how it isn’t necessarily dependent on how long-term the game is designed to be played. I’m going to use this whole article to help me find more games to play!

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Feb 19, 2023Liked by Thomas M

ease - mastery vs elegant - ornamented

While in general as you say they are similar i think in many cases elegant games can require higher mastery as they can be hard to play "right" and this i think is also related to the cool - hot axis or the simulation - emulation axis

E.g. a player that has played very cool games and then switches to a game that is hot might play the hot game in a cool way and not get 100% out of the hot game and will be confused as to what the point is of some mechanics are etc

A game that on the surface looks like it would be a game towards the ease part of the spectrum can thus be considered as something that requires mastery by some people depending on past experience.

I think for ease vs mastery to make sense one need to define to whom the question is posed, someone who has never played roleplaying games, someone who has only player hot or cold games, someone who has experience with both hot and cold games, someone who has only played simulation or emulation games, someone who has played both simulation and emulation games.

And to be charitable we will assume that said person does not have dislike for any particular part of any axis.

or maybe these axis only makes sense when using them on yourself or in a smaller conversation not on a broader scale where its easier to calibrate and understand what you mean, a tool to be used in specific circumstances?

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For simulation vs. emulation, think of Batman fighting the Joker. Does the game make an honest appraisal of their fighting ability and the likely results? Or does the fight progress as a series of beats, in which the drama of the fight is resolved in a comic book like fashion?

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In procedural generation of stories on digital games there is a similar axis to "Simulation versus Emulation" which feels very similar to how the quote describes it.

A procedural generation system that is more on the Simulation side of the axis will let characters act out on their motivations and beliefs, with little regard of whether that results in an engaging story.

In contrast, a system that favors emulation is reasoning about dramatic tension and story beats, and will try steer characters in a direction that will create a compelling narrative, preferably with a nice conclusion.

Taking that back to TTRPG systems, I would interpret a simulation game a game where players predominantly make decisions from the point of view of their characters, while an emulation game lets players make decisions from the point of view of the storyteller, like Microscope.

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Thanks for posting! And congratulations on 3000+ subscribers. Do you know of any sources that talk about game design axes like these and player types like Bartle's taxonomy?

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I have never played a "hotter" game than Blades in the Dark. This is partly because my RPG group is very comfortable with "emotional" roleplay. But, also the mechanics drive play in that direction. Individual XP is awarded for playing consistently with your character's beliefs, drives, etc, or for struggling with your vices or traumas. The ultimate harms are literally traumas. Similarly, the fact that playing as a Crew is central, means that group dynamics are front and center. Which of course is rewarded when you "express the goals, drives, inner conflicts and essential nature of the crew."

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