3.2 Why I hate "Simming"

Created by Commander Eahar R'Soll on 02 Aug 2014 @ 2:14am

The word "Simming," that is.

What do we call the Portland and that thing we do on it? In Obsidian Fleet, the most common term is a “simm” and “simming” – and though it is a term that I use often, it is one which makes me cringe slightly every time I type it.

You will forgive me for writing an entire article about terminology, but there is a point here.

Let us start with the term “simm.” Where does it come from? It comes from an abbreviation for the word “simulation.” And isn’t that a fair description of what we’re doing here? We create our characters in order to place them into certain situations in the Star Trek universe and see how they react and interact, always keeping faithful to realistic notions of cause and effect, actions and reactions?

Welllllll, not really.

The goal of a simulation is to represent reality as accurately possible. The problem is that reality is rather boring. Space is mostly empty space, and I’m sure most Starfleet officers spend the majority of their careers performing mundane tasks like charting gaseous anomalies and ferrying diplomats to and from boring conferences.

And no one would want to watch a show about the 99% of the time that the gaseous anomaly is just a gaseous anomaly.

In short, while a good simulation requires sticking to probable and realistic outcomes, a good story requires bending the laws of probability, allowing for unlikely but interesting outcomes, and letting our awesome heroes beat the odds once in a while.

Just think of the astounding coincidences that happened on the USS Portland so far:
- Arvel being assigned to a ship commanded by an old flame
- Timothy’s mystery date turning out to not only be a nurse on the Portland, but also the Admiral’s daughter
- Jason’s pon farr acting up during a delicate diplomatic dinner, of all places.
- The Portland being attacked by, of all people, a former associate of the Chief Intelligence Officer

And I could go on. The odds of any one of these happening are remote, the odds of all of them happening are infinitesimal. We may have failed as a simulation, but damn if it hasn’t been a cool story so far.

Or, to use a more succinct example: Think of how boring an action movie would be if the physics were realistic. I’m sure we can all agree that the Hollywood result of our hero using a twisted ramp-shaped piece of debris as a motorcycle jump to launch himself into the door of a passing helicopter while spraying bad guys with bullets from the Uzi in his off-hand is much more awesome and badass than the realistic and likely result.

The other problem with thinking of it as a simulation is that it encourages us to think of our characters as fixed variables. A good role-player sticks to their character, always making the realistic choice in accordance with their bio and their personality, that sort of thing.

While I’m not suggesting we throw away our entire characters’ personalities on a whim, sometimes it’s better for the story if we step outside of what our character’s likely reaction to a situation may be. Instead, think first of what action our character can do that would benefit the story, and afterwards figure out how to justify it based on what we know (or are about to find out) about our character’s personality. Our characters are constantly changing, and one of the interesting things about roleplaying is that no matter how tl;dr your bio is, you can always learn something new about your character through play.

Besides, no one wants to watch the three really long movies about the Hobbit who went “you want me to do WHAT with that ring?” and spent the rest of his short and uneventful life frolicking in the Shire while Sauron raised an invincible army and took over the world, even if that is an accurate simulation of what Frodo would have done.

Quit whining and pack your Baggins, you’ve got a quest ahead of you!

Instead of being guided by notions of realism and sticking true to the simulation, it is better to be guided by dramatic principles and a desire for a good story.

So, what’s a good term?

There is “play-by-forum role-playing game,” which I believe appears somewhere on the USS Portland’s website, and is a bit of a mouthful. I do think that the term “role-playing game” or RPG is a little better because it’s a little closer to what we’re actually doing – creating a character and playing his or her role in an emerging story. It also emphasizes that it's a game, which is a good thing because we've all met people who take what we do way too seriously. But it’s also got some baggage, not the least of which is an association with nerds sitting in a basement, eating Cheetos and talking in funny voices while they pretend to be Dwarven knights, while rolling polyhedral dice and consulting forms that look like they were produced by the Canada Revenue Agency to determine if they cut off a goblin’s head with their battleaxe or not.

Okay, guilty as charged.

But the other little piece of baggage with the term role-playing game is the association with traditional tabletop RPGs where the DM is a god sitting behind a screen. He’s driving the bus, coming up with all the plot ideas and railroading the players through them, trying to keep the troops entertained and maybe even offer them the illusion of choice as the story unfolds. Traditionally, tabletop RPGs have been rather simulationist affairs, where players are not allowed to take initiative of their own, and instead are constantly asking the DM questions like "What does my character see?" or "What happens next?"

And that’s something that I'd like to get away from. The Portland isn't my game, it's everyone's. And everyone has a stake in creating cool and interesting stories, not just me.

That’s why I prefer the term “collaborative storytelling.” It’s descriptive and accurate, in that really, what we’re doing is collaborating to tell a story. And it’s a term that I think emphasizes player empowerment. Instead of just sticking to one role in a simulation or playing just one role in a story, it emphasizes that the story – and all story elements, including the ship, plot-critical NPCs, and yes, even the BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy), belong to all the players. Under “collaborative storytelling,” all players, not just the DM, have the freedom to add to the story, build off of it, and move it in cool and interesting directions.

That said, “collaborative storytelling” seems to be in no danger of replacing “simming” in the lexicon of our community anytime soon, so until then, my displeasure with the term will just have to be my own cross to bear.


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