That being said, there is a general tension in the gaming that I enjoy which, this week, has reared its head again: are we playing a game, telling a story or simulating a fantasy?
I'm coming to the conclusion that it's all three.
I like games and the fact that they have winners. The old RPG standard that "roleplaying games don't have winners" is really an illusory claim - do the heroes succeed or not? The game doesn't necessarily end when they fail, but the fact is that they either succeed or fail (to one degree or another).
What I really like about RPGs is that the players (generally) set the goals. Even if, as GM, you give them a mission, they can still choose to reject or modify the goals. Only in the most prescriptive adventure would the GM completely set the agenda... and, in my experience, that is less satisfying for all.
Games have goals and successes and failures. They also have resources by which the participants tackle those goals. And, as a general rule in RPGs, there needs to be a sense of fairness about the resources that the heroes have in contrast to those of the opposition. Parity and balance are not as important as fairness... at least not at my table.
Stories have plots and a sense of dramatic tension, the rise and fall of action towards a satisfying conclusion. RPGs sometimes try to emulate this narrative style, to greater or lesser success.
Heroes should probably overcome the obstacles and defeat the villains in a good story (unless your hero is really an anti-hero). Heroes shouldn't die without good reason and they should do things that are consistent with their values and the moral position that they represent.
It's probably less important to a story that the details of things are factually accurate or possible. It's more important that they feel right and maintain an internal consistency that gives a dramatic sense of possibility. In other words, actions and consequences should fit the story and not jar with the audience's expectations too much.
Simulations are all about "what if..." and "how..." questions. What if there was magick? How would that work? What if there were giant mecha? How would they operate? The point is to try and accurately model the fantastic within the context of a game. That doesn't just apply to stuff and effects, however.
If you're playing a roleplaying game then the first thing you might want to accurately simulate is the hero that you are playing. What if I am a Warrior... how do I play that Warrior properly? What if I am a Mage? There is a difference, right? How do I play it?
Simulations are often concerned with the way in which the details play out in a game. Things have to be not only internally consistent but also modelled with some degree of accuracy. The term "accuracy" is the bit that can cause some tension because, for a lot of players, what is scientifically considered "possible" is often not the subject of fantasy... and it's easy to forget that not everyone really cares about the details that you might care about.
All Three Please
At my table I want all three of those elements: we are playing a game with clear goals and useful resources; we are also telling cool stories which need to fulfil heroic concerns; we are playing in a fantastic setting which needs to satisfy a desire to feel alive and "real". And that doesn't sound like it should be such a hard thing.
Except that, over time, roleplaying games have become beholden to trying to satisfy one or (at best) two of those elements at the expense of the others. And there now exist evangelists for one or other of the camps that have grown up around each.
I want to have my cake, eat it and come back for more. We are playing games. We are telling stories. We are simulating fantasies. This is meant to be fun.
Do I have a solution? Maybe it's simply not to concern myself over much with what, exactly, we are doing when we play. It probably means not placing self-limiting beliefs about "how games should be" above the fun of a session.
The rules we have been writing for our own gaming are born out of the game-simulation-story tradition of classic roleplaying. We are probably going to be damned either way you look at us: the story-tellers will hate that our mechanics simulate effects in our world; the gamers will hate that we're not concerned with balance; the simulationists will dislike our concern for telling cool stories about heroes.
The mistake, I believe, is in two attitudes: believing that there is only one "true way" to play roleplaying games; looking for what's missing instead of seeing what's there.
The way we play games is simply that: it's the way we play games. If you like something from one game system then why not use it? If it doesn't quite work the way you want it to, why not mash it up with something else that you do like? If you and your players are having fun, who is going to be complaining?
Have your cake, eat it and come back for more.