Hi I am the Middle-Aged DM and I am a recovering simulationist, it has been 322 days since I last made my players haggle with a merchant over the price of 50 feet of rope and dry rations….. Now don’t get me wrong I have no problem grabbing a 10 foot pole and a sac of chickens and BECMI’ng the shit up, it’s just that I am slowly getting a sense of what my preferred play style is both as a DM and a player. In some ways it is like going through a kind of gaming puberty or nerdberty if you will.
As a gamer I had been so accustomed to a certain way of playing based on early D&D and the prevailing attitudes on what constituted good role playing and you know a “proper” game. This really shook out as you talking, thinking and acting like your character while wandering around and interacting with the setting that the DM had provided. So if you were just entering a town after several hard days of travel you would probably stop and talk with the guards at the gate, possibly haggle over an entrance fee, then make your way to an inn where you would talk with the stable boy about caring for your horses and then into the inn itself where you would chat up the barman, flirt with barmaid/DM and probably get wasted; or similarly, traveling from the butcher to the baker and onto the candlestick maker gathering the necessary info to find the plot or move story foreword.
Now there is nothing wrong with this style of play, I had fun with it for years, but I always felt slightly frustrated with it, like the pacing was off or something. It is really hard to put my finger on it. Things started to evolve for me the more I read and heard about the so called “story games” with their emphasis on the narrative and collaborative story building. I started viewing the gaming session as a series of scenes, either generated by me or the players, for both combat and non-combat encounters, with Q&A filling the gaps in between. I think this is part of the reason I am still rather fond of 4th edition D&D as its focus on set piece battles and narrative style works well with this kind of mind-frame, and why a lot of my fellow old-timers hated it so much.
In the aforementioned play examples instead of having the players haggle with the merchant I tend to skip that scene unless there is some sort of interesting complication or interaction to be had. Mundane equipment and dealings I let slide and just hand wave or throw it back to the players to tell me if anything interesting or noteworthy happened. Now if it is something more interesting like say poison or some gear for a scheme or job they got cooking then we might flesh that out a little more (cause I can certainly smell a complication percolating) with some narration and Q&A followed by some skill roles and we see what happens.
I have also shifted to being more right out on front street with information and sometimes give it as part of the scene set up or through the Q&A or again asking the players what the information they a re looking for might be. I don’t really worry about breaking verisimilitude or immersion as both are again very subjective experiences and not necessarily under the control of the DM or other players. I find I get just as much or more “role playing” and character interaction as before with a little less awkwardness. In my last Dark Sun session I started the session with he players locked in battle (a little media res if you will) except I asked them who it was they were fighting and why? Then we built the scene from there and it set the tone and focus for the rest of the evening.
I guess what it boils down to is the age old debate of simulationism vs. narrativism, which is constantly being flamed back and forth over the forums and interwebs, often disguised and in displaced forms. People tend to argue this issue way past rationality into a black and white stance, when we are really talking shades of grey as simulationism and narrativism are opposite end points on a spectrum or continuum of play styles (with neither being superior). It comes down what your preferred play style is and I guess mine has shifted a bit to the narrativist side of the spectrum.