The Swiss Cheese Model of RPGs

There is a perception that all RPGs lie somewhere on a spectrum. At one end there are games which attempt to simulate a world and the player is bound by the rules of that simulation – e.g. the character starts with certain amount of gold, a fixed number of spells. At the other there are pure story games where there are no limits on what a character can be or do, though there may be restrictions or rules about how the story is told.

Often this spectrum is portrayed as a split between different game types. Traditional RPGs can trace their family tree back to D&D and the simulationist wargames Gary Gygax enjoyed playing. New style games owe more to the tradition of sitting around the campfire and exchanging tales. However this is a false dichotomy and the notion there is a spectrum of simulation/story games is flawed.

D&D is taken by most as a simulation game. Gygax et al created a set of rules for how their fantasy world worked in considerable detail and the players are constrained in their choices by those rules. On other hand, Steal Away Jordan by Julia Ellingboe [ ] is as much a story game as they come with only one mechanic to resolves all forms of conflict – phyiscal or social.

And yet, which is the real simulation? Steal Away Jordan is a game about American slaves where the characters are slaves and players do not have the the freedom to choose their character’s name. The purpose of the game is to give some insight or sense about the reality of slave life. In short, it wants to simulate the experience of being a slave. In D&D, a character is free to make their own choices and define who they are almost without limit yet the players of Steal Away Jordan can only tell the story of a slave.

There is no clear distinction between story and simulation RPGs and certainly not a spectrum of games which can be easily divided into types. An alternate way of thinking about RPGs is about what aspects of the game does a player discover someone’s creativity and which they can create for themselves.

In discovery centric games the players are discovering what the rules or GM tell them is there. This is both literal in the sense of exploring a dungeon but figuratively, in the sense of discovering the creativity of the game designer through fixed character class or spells or weapons.

In creative games the focus on giving players as much freedom to create their world as possible. In the case of Microscope [ ] that can be extremely literal whereas in Fate, the players are free to define parts of their character’s world through their aspects. Or in various Powered by the Apocalypse games a character may have the power to create and introduce new NPCs or locations into the game world.

The key aspect is that all RPGs have some elements of discovery and some elements of creativity. What varies is which parts of the game the player discovers and which part they create. It is not linear either, otherwise creative games may force discovery on the players in particular ways (as Steal Away Jordan does with names).

The mix of discovery and creativity in a game is like a swiss cheese. Each game, each cheese is different and can vary wildly in the ratio between hole and cheese. The art of game design is getting the mix right though what is we mean by right is very much a matter of taste.

Photo Credit : Anne Worner – On the Road to Swiss Mountain