Dev Notes 13 - What are we modeling?

This Developer Note may act as sort of an update of my previous discussion about mechanics and play styles. I wouldn't say that the previous note is negated, but this one definitely reflects a maturing perspective as a result of many conversations and reflections I have had between then and now. 

In a recent episode of (Ennie-nominated podcast) Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, Robin Laws offered a case for rephrasing and redefining the aspect of gaming that some refer to as "simulation." I won't repeat everything he and Ken said, as you really should be listening to this podcast anyway. The takeaway summary that I will offer here is that "simulation" is an impulse or drive, but not the actual goal of any role playing game, no matter how realistic the system may claim to be. Instead, the real goal is to "model" those aspects of reality that the designers and presumably the players find fun and interesting. 

Robin Laws


Robin Laws, the Gentle Canadian Genius of Gaming


Part of the reason that I like this viewpoint is that it allows us to reconcile many types of gaming back under the same umbrella. Every single role playing game - from GURPS and Pathfinder to Dread and Monsterhearts - is attempting to model some thing or list of things. The differences between games and play styles simply arise out of the varying preferences for what is being modeled.

For instance, many of the games that are often referred to as indie or story games can be grouped together because they include models of emotional or social experiences. Dread uses a very tangible and literal model of the sense of tension it is trying to explore. Games based on the Apocalypse World engine usually contain specific models for relationships between characters and groups. (On a side note, this is why I often feel that story gamers should LARP - these are the exact elements that non-boffer LARP models better than most other gaming experiences.)

Jenga Tower




On the other end of the spectrum is a system like GURPS, where the purported goal is to model...everything. Every situation you can imagine has a rule, right? And yet this is not actually true. GURPS has no mechanic like “strings” or “bonds” to represent the changing connections between characters. GURPS has no “sex moves” in the Apocalypse World sense. (Please do not take this as an invitation for someone to hack GURPS to add sex moves.) Those elements that are so important in Apocalypse World games are nowhere to be found in other games. Even though GURPS is supposed to model everything, it too makes choices.

So with every game, there is a deliberate selection being made of what is considered fun or important to model. Some games we like because we agree with that selection, and some games we don’t because we disagree. It’s not about story vs. simulation or player-focused vs. GM-focused. It becomes a simple and uncontroversial question - What are we modeling?

We now ask that question of ourselves.

There are a number of things that Savage Worlds as a core system chooses to model that are important to our setting, so let’s address those first:


  • Character growth is flexible and continuous. Point-buy systems are preferable to class-based systems for modeling the idea that people can learn a wide variety of things at any time in life. This sense of having many options to select from is important to the inventive ethos of the Steamscapes world. I like the feeling that there is more out there than your character will ever learn.
  • Heroes (and important villains) are different from other people. Savage Worlds is one of a small set of systems that mechanically distinguishes between the narratively important characters and “everyone else.” In an otherwise historical setting, this helps the players feel a sense of significance. It gives us a reason to follow their story in particular.
  • Sometimes things go crazy. The unpredictability of outcomes in Savage Worlds is useful for supporting the flavor of an alternative historical game. Sometimes readers (and writers) of history have this mistaken perception that events always progress in a logical and reasonable fashion, but more often than we think major events are influenced or decided by random chance. With its Aces and Wild Dice, Savage Worlds offers a model of how that can happen on a smaller scale, and that model then supports a broader perception of history as more chaotic.

Savage Worlds Logo


The explosion in the logo? That's the dice.


To this list, we add the elements that the Steamscapes setting rules are trying to model:

  • People have specialized knowledge and expertise. The unique Skills that we have added to each Professional Edge are important in modeling the idea that some understanding requires more intense training. Not everyone can have a particular esoteric knowledge, and that helps encourage distinctions between characters. This element exists slightly in conflict with the view that character growth is flexible and continuous, and that is intentional. We want players to feel two pulls in their progression - to learn many things as well as to specialize. We want the choice between those pulls to feel meaningful.
  • Innovation takes time. By building Edge Trees into the more scientific Professions, we model the concept that new ideas do not spring from the brain fully formed. Rather, they develop in progression from other ideas, sometimes quickly but sometimes gradually. This is an element that supports the historical realism of the setting and distinguishes it from more fantastical steampunk settings. Invention is not instant in real life, so it should not be instant in our game.
  • In a stratified society, there is always someone on the bottom. We have gone out of our way - through mechanics, fiction, and plot elements in our free adventures - to show how automatons have been inserted into the social structure of Steamscapes below everyone else. They are the objects of both subtle and overt prejudice, from shunning to insults to outright violence. This is a way to model the racist, classist, and sexist attitudes of the time without making any player feel targeted outside of the game context. Other prejudices still do exist in our setting to varying degrees, and players can certainly include them as much as they are comfortable. However, while other prejudices may be optional, the treatment of automatons is ever-present. We want players to deal with these issues, but we have given them a vehicle for abstraction so that it doesn’t have to be personal.


So the next time you are trying to explain why you do or do not like a particular game, consider examining this question. You may find that it reveals more useful information about your own preferences and play style. And if you are preparing to play or design a game, definitely ask yourself this question so that you can approach the process with a strong plan and realistic expectations.

-Fairman Rogers