Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, May 18, 2016
Gamist vs. Worldist

I've always been very much interested in game design. Most of the time I experience game design from the point of view of the consumer, the player. But some of the important game design questions from the developer's point of view do pop up when I am the dungeon master (DM) in a pen & paper roleplaying campaign. And maybe the most fundamental one of them is the question of whether to be gamist or worldist in your design.

Gamist design considers the game to be first and foremost a game. It doesn't matter what the numbers represent, but it is important that the game achieves a state of "flow", where every single encounter is perfectly balanced to be neither too easy, nor too hard.

Worldist design considers that everything in the game represents something in the game world, and that it is most important that this world is believable. There need to be interesting decisions which result in real consequences.

Most games are a mix of the two. Some people deplore that the gamist design philosophy is on the rise in video game design, leading to games in which you always win, always progress, and never experience setbacks. But there is also a backlash of extreme worldist game design, with unforgiving sandbox gameplay with very little flow. Neither gamist nor worldist game design is wrong, the eternal quest is to find the good balance between the two of them.

In terms of a DM of a pen & paper roleplaying game, some of the choices are inherent in the system you play. For example 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons is very gamist, and a character or monster can be at the same time frozen and on fire, poison gas affects some monsters who obviously don't breathe, and you can strangle a gelatinous cube. But there are still gamist vs. worldist design decisions to make in the way that you run an adventure.

The gamist view of a D&D adventure is that the story is a thinly veiled excuse for players to go to a dungeon or similar place and have a series of perfectly balanced tactical combat encounters. Some DMs go so far as to fudge dice rolls when things go wrong, so as never to kill player characters. The worldist view is that the DM represents a fantasy world which has to be believable and logical, and there have to be consequences to the decisions of the players.

On the one side Sid Meier once said that a good game is a series of interesting decisions. On the other side in order for interesting decisions to exist, there needs to be visible difference in outcome between the consequences of each decision. Which means that if the players make a "bad" decision, logically the outcome has to be bad as well.

A typical problem here is if the players know about a location where a large number of monsters reside. They could decide to approach that location carefully and try to find smaller groups of monsters to attack, or they could go with what one of my old groups called "Plan A" and just do a frontal attack. It is inherent to the system design of D&D that fighting a number of smaller groups is easier than fighting all of those monsters at once. So in a worldist design the players have a choice between several easy fights or one big and hard fight. A gamist design would want to avoid that situation, because the philosophy is to only have balanced fights. To some degree dungeons are inherently gamists, because outside a few rare occasions the monsters in a dungeon never cooperate and are usually encountered small group by small group, with nobody ever raising an alarm. But once you play an adventure outside a dungeon setting, more worldist consideration tend to appear.

Personally I am principally opposed to fudging dice and guaranteeing a good outcome of any encounter regardless of player decisions. For me decisions need to matter, or they aren't fun. But I would try to keep the encounters in a certain range: A good decision might lead to an easy encounter, but which still isn't trivial; the bad decision would lead to a hard encounter, without that being an automatic total party kill or frustrating.

The main problem is how to signal that to players who are gamist in their personal expectations. The people going always for Plan A, frontal assault, are those who had the experience of gamist design in which Plan A still leads to a balanced encounter which the players would win without too much trouble. So why come up with a complicated plan if you expect equally balanced encounters regardless of what you do? On the other hand if every decision has too serious consequences, the game stalls into an endless discussion because players don't dare to make a move in fear of that being the wrong move. How does one keep the game going without making decisions either terrifying nor inconsequential? 

You could just let em get destroyed when they try plan A, and allow them to restart before the approach. Make it clear at the same time that your dungeon layout is not made for yolo setups, but for smart play. I tried it like that and it worked. Was a rather easy way to break the preconceptions of some people, and not much effort to setup, although somewhat costly in execution time.
This reminds me of a session I had back when I used to play tabletop rpgs. The group of seven of us spent an entire Sunday session, from about 1pm to nearly midnight, discussing and rejecting plans on how to find and gain access to a particular, unfamiliar location in a city. Almost twelve hours of nothing but discussion - with breaks for meals.

The GM became somewhat frustrated as we argued and then rejected various plans. He made it quite plain that he was willing to give us some leeway, even some hints on where to look and what to do, but we refused to allow him to break the fourth wall. We tried a couple of the plans out and they barely got going before an obvious flaw led us to pull back and start the discussions over again.

In the end we came up with something we were prepared to go with - I have absolutely no memory of what it was - and it worked first time. Probably because by then the GM would have accepted "we call our fairy godmother and she magics us in", he was so fed up with listening to us going round and round the same arguments.

Afterwards he told us the problem we were trying so hard to think our way around wasn't meant to be even the slightest suggestion of a speed bump in the plot. He had never envisaged that when he mentioned the location in a description that we would not be able to work out how to find the building. "I thought you'd just ask someone where it was", he said. "We didn't know any of us knew the language", someone replied.

I still remember that session more than thirty years on! I think of that as an extreme clash between players who wanted a full-on Worldist model playing under a GM who's skills were very much in the Gamist mode.
I would call "There need to be interesting decisions which result in real consequences" a 'gameist' pattern in a sense. A huge deadly dragon has consequences (attack it and you die) but it's not interesting. To make it interesting, there must at least seem to be a chance of winning.

Conversely, to a more hard-core gamer, steady safe progress may not make for an interesting game.

For the purposes of online game design, I think there is a pretty important third faction, the explorer faction. The issue the heavy "gamist" oriented games run into with explorers is that all content is spoon fed to you. I don't mean easy, I mean that all quests and content will have breadcrumbs and clear indicators pointing you right to them. This is different from decisions or difficulty level, you could still have very linear quest zones with varying difficulties and meaningful decisions.

The problem explorers have is the feeling of "there is nothing else to this world," or even "there is no actual world here, only the game." If you go "off-path," there is nothing there (or else an area you haven't been directed to yet, most likely currently too high level). I think this is one of the biggest differences between Vanilla WoW zones and post-Cataclysm zones. Vanilla WoW had lots of little things you might not know about if you didn't search them out, either in game or online.
@Caldazar - Not a bad approach, but for our group this is one of the things we discuss during the campaign / character creation phase. We have found that making it rather explicit what we are doing as a group helps set expectations.

As someone that usually GMs, for me the question is usually "Should I make encounters that the players are expected to run away from?" Either way, I think my players need to know that. We can save lots of time (as Bhagpuss observes) by them knowing that "Plan A is always an option". The down side is that "Plan B... or C, or D, or Q" can be very fun to come up with.
I think something needs to be said about the game-ing environment. Table top games tend to differ from MMORPGS, in that the discussions that occur around a table top are often driven by the progression factor when facing an unknown, much like Bhagphuss indicates above. In MMORPGS however, we have Wiki's and other sites providing information that the game designer did not intend to be made available when it was released. To me this made all the difference between Vanilla WoW and the post-wiki age. Just imagine if someone had a copy of your D&D module complete with monster list. How quickly would the immersion factor be broken if a player was making all the right choices, or knew beforehand that a fight with a certain group of monsters was winnable? The Heigan "Safety Dance" was very much gameist, but how would such an encounter play out in D&D? I shudder to think how a D&D party would be able to complete it without driving themselves and the DM mad.

When I played D&D back during the 2nd Edition days, most DM's allowed players to slightly change the intended narrative by means that the DM didn't actually control - such as players deciding that backtracking to a previous location and talking with previously unspoken to NPC's. Would the NPC's be aware of the groups exploits since they last left and be coaxed into providing additional information about the narrative, or would the "worldist" minded DM stick to his/her guns and have the NPC's behave as a static, non-gameist entity?
Most of your post makes a lot of sense to me, but how can you say that the GM "cheating" with the dice belongs on the gameist side of things? Either it is a seperate axis (chance vs narrative), most likely, or I would say it has to fall on the other side of the worldist/gamist divide. If you run D&D as a game first and foremost, cheating with the dice as a GM ín an allready "perfectly balanced encounter" just seems counterproductive, and definately doesn't sound like something a gameist would do.
On the other hand I accept that these are your definitions, and I do recognize the playstyle that you describe as gameist. (I might choose to just call it themeparkist instead :-), letting the players enjoy the ride from one unloseable encounter to the next), i have however also seen a lot of worldist play, with a strong narrative character focus as well, where the GM was just as likely to fudge dierolls to avoid character death unless the player had done somehing really stupid.
In the end I think the gameist/worldist divide is just one of many divides, and definately not one in which dicecheating falls on either side. Rather I would say that pure gameists and worldists both would fall on the no-cheating side of whatever that divide would be called.
My point on dice cheating is that if you are worldist you more easily accept that bad stuff can happen, and that includes statistically outlier dice rolls. A gamist can only control the setup of an encounter, and a perfectly balanced encounter can go wrong if the monsters roll high while the players roll low, so dice cheating sure is a temptation for people who want to guarantee a smooth flow of gameplay and constant progress.
I think you're wrong on that, Tobold. The gamist side also believes that the game should be played by the rules, and if the rules say you die, that's tough but fair. If a gamist group does not like that, they're far more likely to introduce new rules to mitigate dying than to "fudge" individual die rolls.

In my experience, the worldist people are far more likely to fudge, because they're primarily crafting a story and experience. A random roll is far more likely to screw up their story (one-shot the bad guy!), and so the DM fudges to protect that story.

In any case, gamist vs worldist is likely orthogonal to fudging vs not-fudging.

Another axis similar to your gamist vs worldist is Combat As Sport vs Combat As War. See this thread on ENWorld: Combat as Sport vs Combat as War.
Some people deplore that the gamist design philosophy is on the rise in video game design, leading to games in which you always win, always progress, and never experience setbacks.

How did 'always win' EVER get associated with gamist play?

As Shandren said, that's themepark play.
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