#59: Emulation Nation

I. Dear Reader,

This week, I had a twitter thread get a lot of attention and so I thought I’d clean it up and share it here as well. It started because I was seeing a lot of people use the word ‘emulation’. But some were using it positively and some were using it negatively. And basically, I wanted to try and clearly lay out both points of view.

So that said, by far, the most common use of the word is when a game system is described as good (or bad) at emulating a specific genre. Often, it’s even more specific. A game will try to emulate a specific work of media. And I think this feels particularly universal because it's become an indie RPG’s default marketing technique. Don't get me wrong, it's a very strong pitch to your potential audience and you should use it.

"If you like regency romance, Good Society lets you play that!"

"If you like Star Wars, check out Laser-Ritter."

I don't think anyone argues whether this works well. I think the problem is that it works too well.

But I think it has become so common that some people have started to think that the strength of TTRPGs is primarily genre emulation. Like this is what they are good at and what designers should be aiming for.

And very rightfully, various designers have pushed back against this. For example, this is Vincent Baker on Apocalypse World:

My take is, my games aren’t genre emulation. They’re work in their genres, plain and simple. When you play them, you aren’t emulating those genres, you’re just plain no-bones making new fiction in them. There’s absolutely nothing “emulate” about it.

You should go read the full answer here. It’s somewhere in the middle so you’ll have to scroll a bit.

This might be a surprise to people because Apocalypse World’s playbooks are sorta based on the characters of the TV show Firefly. Isn’t that AW emulating Firefly? Not really! AW isn’t trying to be Firefly. It’s not telling players that the games will feel like a Firefly episode. AW uses Firefly in the same way that Lord of the Rings used Beowulf.

Every work of art is in conversation with others. When creating, your inspiration comes from somewhere. Everything is a remix to some extent. This is normal and good.

With RPGs, the problem is only when emulation becomes the norm - when people start asking why Wanderhome isn’t Redwall or Wind in the Willows (true example). When this happens, it feels like people don’t want games to be unique. And that sounds awful. If emulation becomes “the thing that RPGs do”, unique and fresh games start being seen as weird or worse, “hard”.

Yikes. Nobody wants that.

Yours critically,


PS: There’s a broader issue with the marketing strategy of comparing books, movies, TV shows, games to other books, movies, TV shows and games constantly. If you want to read more about this problem in SFF book publishing, this is a great article.

The basic summary is that it is a process designed to produce more of the same. If you’re making something that doesn’t have popular media touchstones to lean on (say because you’re from a culture that isn’t well-represented in Hollywood), your work is going to be seen as weird or hard. If it’s a book, you might not get the publishing deal. If it’s a movie, no funding. If it’s a small indie game, people might not even click the link to read more.

II. Media of the Week

A find: a new Youtube channel about historical RPGs. This one is about a medieval boardgame that got turned into a roleplaying game in Italy. And get this, it’s based on an epic poem that was very popular at the time.

This emulation / media comparison thing might have been going on for a much longer time than I thought!

III. Links of the Week

  • Split/Party is a newsletter that is going to be doing review and critique of RPGs and they recently put out a fabulous framework that lays out their process.

  • Ava Islam talks about memory and how her game, Errant! had too much to track - and how she solved it.

    • I also recently caught Ava on the Lost Bay Podcast and it’s a really great interview. She talks about blowing up D&D from the inside and it’s hilarious.

  • On the Githyanki Diaspora blog, an actual play report on the Between, a PbtA game of victorian horror.

  • Vincent and Meguey Baker released Under Hollow Hills, their game about a fey circus, and are doing an on-going Q&A about it. Just ask your question in the comments!

  • On the Liber Ludorum blog, drop-dice tables and other ways to use dice that isn’t only about the number that is face up!


IV. Small Ads

All links in the newsletter are completely based on my own interest. But to help support my work, this section contains sponsored links and advertisements. If you’d like your products to appear here, read the submission form.

  • Dare to enter the Lair of the Lizard Cult! A nasty little dungeon, compatible with MÖRK BORG and made for the Album Crawl Rocks the 80s game jam.

  • Shepherds is a JRPG-inspired PbtA game of hopeful fantasy. Play youthful heroes who help people, give friendship speeches, and forge bonds of trust with each other.

  • Flabbergasted is a comedic TTRPG set in the 1920s! Join a social club & get up to mischief & mayhem - all before your afternoon tea! Coming to Kickstarter September 28!

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Hello, dear readers. This newsletter is written by me, Thomas Manuel. I’m half-man, half-beast, half-journalist, half-game designer.

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