Watsonian and Doyleist explanations

The Sherlock Holmes stories were written by two authors. Within the world in which Holmes lived they are true (but sometimes inaccurate) stories written by John Watson MD, an under-employed English doctor who turned to the pen when he struggled to make a living in his profession. In the world in which we read and discuss them they were written by Arthur Conan Doyle, an under-employed English doctor who turned to the pen when he struggled to make a living in his profession. In Sherlock Holmes fandom and fan pseudo-scholarship it is customary to classify explanations for why things are in the stories as Watsonian explanations or Doyleist explanations, according to whether they explain the text in terms of “why did Dr Watson write that?” or “why did Dr Doyle¹ write that?”. A Watsonian explanation is an “in-universe explanation” or a “character-level” explanation. A Doyleist explanation is an “out-of-universe explanation” or “writer’s-room explanation”.

It seems to me that in the thirty-ohmygodhasitbeen38years years that I have been playing RPGs we have seen a trend away from predominant Watsonism to a mix with a lot more Doyleism in it.

In the early Eighties we expected that rules would be physics engines. Sometimes they would simulate alternative realities such as Glorantha, but they were inclined very strongly to make things happen for in-universe reasons; it was considered the acme of design skill to craft the Watsonian reality to genre requirements rather than producing unrealistic results for Doyleist reasons. Setting descriptions presented the Watsonian reality of the world, with Watsonian rationalisations for things that existed for Doyleist reasons, and avoided mentioning the designer’s Doyleist reasons for having constructed things as one did. Players expected to be able to play their characters with psychological realism at the Doyleist level² without being required to make Watsonian errors for Doyleist reasons. In game post-mortems, and in out-of-game discussions of one’s world building, it felt like an accusation when someone said that you had done such-and-such for a Doyleist reason.

Nowadays, it seems to me, it is common and accepted for games to include mechanics that make things happen for Doyleist reasons: recent games often strive to be genre emulators rather than simulators of alternative realities. Players are expected and explicitly asked to do the Doyleist thing and find their own Watsonian reason for doing it if they need one. Settings are often described with frank Doyleist explanations of why things are as they are and happen as they happen.

I dislike feeling the tension between Doyleist and Watsonian levels while I’m playing. I don’t mind constructing a setting or generating a character in the pose of Dr Doyle and then working out Watsonian rationalisations for my Doyleist choices. But when I’m playing I like to suspend my belief in Doyle along with my disbelief in Watson and the situation of my character, and not have to deal with “that wouldn’t really happen” moments.

¹ He became Sir Arthur only rather later, and was knighted not for writing excellent adventure stories or dull historical fiction, but for perfervid anti-German alarmism leading up to WWI.

² And get away with rationalising perverse game-breaking and premise-denying character behaviour by Watsonian appeals to that being “what [he] would really do”.

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Since no-one is paying any attention anyway, I will go on to say that in an RPG (and maybe in literature and drama) everything that is mentioned ought ideally to have both a Doyleist and a Watsonian reason for being mentioned. In an RPG setting design every feature ought to have both a Doyleist and a Watsonian reason for being included.

An event that occurs in a story or adventure, or a object that is mentioned in description or narrative, that has no Doyleist reason for being or occurring in the story is at best a distraction from the plot or theme. In worse cases characters may either use it or react to it in such as way that diminishes or spoils Dr Doyle’s story, or in failing to use it without Watsonian reason for that failure, may challenge plausibility. As Anton Chekov may have advised us, you don’t put a gun on the wall in Act I unless it gets fired in Act III. For another example, don’t put privately-operated FTL spaceships into your SF RPG setting unless you want PCs gallivanting around the universe and dropping rocks from orbit. Don’t put it in unless you have a reason to want it there.

An event that occurs in a story or adventure, or a object that is mentioned in description or narrative, that has no Watsonian reason for being or occurring in the story is at best needless challenge to suspension of disbelief. It draws attention to the artifice. At worst it can imply absurdities, so that a reader or viewer finds the plot or setting nonsensical, and a character-player can’t figure out how his or her character ought to behave or might set about achieving any goals, because the setting doesn’t make sense. Don’t put it in unless it makes sense for it to be there.

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I have what I think would have to be called a strong Watsonian bias. When I’m playing a character, I want things that happen to happen for Watsonian reasons, and I want to be thinking about the Watsonian reasons. If the Doylist reason comes up in play, I feel that the GM has failed in their art, and has let me down.

This came up in a very different context many years ago, when my then roommate was taking a course in set design, and had to design a set for Man of La Mancha. At one point she asked me what I thought about a certain part of her design, and I looked at it and asked, “Okay, what’s on the other side of this pillar?” And she explained to me that there was no “other side”; it was just a surface on a stage. And I said yes, of course I knew that, but I had to visualize the three-dimensional geometry of the structure to be able to answer questions about it. Or, to put it in theological terms, if I were creating the Earth in 4004 B.C., with all the species in their present forms, I would feel that I had to create the implied evolutionary history and provide suitable fossils to give hints of it.

Of course there are also dramaturgical reasons for all of those decisions, and I may think about them when I’m deciding what kind of campaign to run and what kind of setting to provide. But until the world acquires enough solidity so that I start saying, “Oh, of course if it has X it must have Y and Z,” the engines of creation haven’t really engaged for me.


When I am designing a setting it needs to make sense on a Watsonian level (that being a less demanding grade than absolute rigour). I feel that this is a requirement of interesting RPGs, since unlike linear fiction (my term for books, films, etc., in which there’s only one path) the GM cannot rely on the players not to say “hang on, if we combine X and Y we have a setting-breaking advantage”. In the style of game I usually run, thinking about how to combine things is rewarded, and I don’t want to discourage players from doing it.

(side note - I regard machine-moderated interactive fiction, like computer games or some boardgames, as being on the linear or lightly-branching end as far as major plot elements go, even if the precise way you get to the pre-set scenes can vary.)

Therefore, while I don’t have to think of every possible combination in advance, there are some powers (by which I mean technology, magic, psi, anything that’s not part of our everyday experience) which have big flags on them. The most obvious is reactionless drives, not because they break physics, but because if you combine one of those with a power plant you have a relativistic missile.

When I decide to include or exclude such a power, my reason as a writer is a Doylist one: I think it’ll make for a more interesting game if I put things like this. Wives and Sweethearts has a space navy several hundred years in the future keeping to British naval tradition because my core concept for the game is “the novels of John Winton in space”.

But there must always be a Watsonian reason too. Inside the game universe, people need reasons for doing what they do, things need reasons to exist. That naval tradition was deliberately maintained/resurrected for reasons of morale when the UK unexpectedly found herself being a great power again.

I’d draw a contrast to a setting like Firefly, which is almost explicitly Doylist: the answer to “why are things this way” is usually “because that’s what would happen in a space Western”. The bar has a force-field window in order that a guy can be thrown through it, and that doesn’t imply anything about the use of force-fields elsewhere. I find it much more difficult to run a game in a setting like that, because I can’t get into the “of course” state that @whswhs describes. (Or I start coming up with in-universe explanations, which I believe is known as “fanwank”, the classic example being the Kessel Run.)

ETA something that occurred to me as I wrote another post: “Watsonian” is simulationist, while “Doylist” encompasses both gamist (“to make an interesting challenge”) and narrativist (“to make the story work”).


I, too, have a Watsonian bias, and need to have the “Of course” engine working to be able to GM freely. My first experience of RPGs was OD&D and AD&D at an engineering university, where this was the usual style, and the more Doylist style of early TSR publications was thought of as “not making sense.” (We also didn’t think much of their research.)

But a lot of people seem happy to play games with structures and plots that are largely shaped by Doylist considerations. When I’m feeling impatient, I attribute this to imitation of television plotting, but that’s probably unfair. Does anyone have a theory of why this mode is actually popular?

I regard appeals to genre convention as essentially Doylist (in that they have no relation to anything within the world of the story), but I think it’s possible to have enjoyable games which are constrained that way. The humour of the moment when someone in the Nile Empire (Torg’s pulp realm) shouted “stop them, you fools” over the radio doesn’t work without the players at least being aware of the way these things usually go.

A thing that makes Firefly* work as a setting for games is that it’s small-scale Watsonian (and very obviously inspired by Traveller games): a standard plot can be “we have this problem, we have these resources, how do we solve it”. Where it starts to break is in considerations of tech level (if we can make this why can’t we make that), astrography, and so on. The invention, late in the day, of a multi-star system with lots of borderline-habitable planets seems to me a way of getting round the setting creator not having had a grasp of the difference between interplanetary and interstellar distances. (Terry Nation didn’t know the difference between a solar system and a galaxy, and it didn’t do his career any harm.)

* which I’m mentioning a lot at the moment because it’s the television setting with which I have the most current gaming experience

but the point of this is that for the sort of stories that Firefly is set up to tell it doesn’t matter whether going from Whitefall to Persephone is an interplanetary or an interstellar journey; it matters that it takes three days and uses up this much of your fuel reserve, and you may meet other ships on the way.

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To attempt to answer John’s actual question, though: I think that if you start off being a fan of a show, or even of a genre (“the sort of storytelling that happens in this kind of show”), then you may have a desire to tell more of that sort of story in your games. And it’s something that traditional simulationist role-playing doesn’t do well: GURPS gives you tools for determining whether character A can seduce character B and when character C will find out about it, but it doesn’t give you guidance as to when such a seduction or discovery would be dramatically appropriate.

I think that’s one reason why Margaret Weis’s Smallville RPG was a success, though not with a lot of old-school* gamers: I haven’t played it and it’s not for me, but it puts lots of emphasis on the changing interpersonal relationships of the core cast (i.e. the PCs). It makes “I have a new superhero power” exactly as important as “I think I might be gay”. The extreme version of this is probably Robin Laws’ Dramasystem (which again I haven’t played), but Matt Wilson’s Primetime Adventures (which I have) does a similar thing: sure, you have Edges, which are basically broad skill/background packages like “flapper” or “war hero”, but the most important factor in determining how well you do in a conflict is your Screen Presence… which varies with each episode.

* by which I do not mean Old School, with dungeons and fighters and magic-users and so on

One important aspect of what we might call “televisual style” is building through play: you don’t need to say specifically that you have Guns and Tactics and Cool Under Fire and Reputation, you just have the overall “War Hero” trait and you can fill in details of that when they become necessary. It’s perfectly OK for the War Hero to invent, six episodes in, “that time I was captured and had to make my way back from behind enemy lines”… if it’s relevant to that episode’s plot. While there may be a series bible, it doesn’t go into the sort of detail that gamers like me prefer to have nailed down before the main story starts.

Hey, @MichaelCule, you’ve done more of this sort of narrative-focused game than I have… what do you find appealing about this style of play?

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Well, the pleasure of this sort of game is that it doesn’t preclude anything just because that thing isn’t specifically mentioned on the character sheet. And it doesn’t create a Huge Long List of stuff that’s appropriate in the setting the way you pretty much have to if you’re using GURPS.

There are no character points, no lists of skills. That makes improvising for both the GM and the players a lot easier. The best example for me is HEROQUEST, which enthusiasm is only tempered by my inability to make the game actually work.

But the problem tends to be that when you get down to the level of detailed imagining of things, of really getting your character into a situation the general purpose traits (like Identities in UNKNOWN ARMIES or just about anything in HEROQUEST) tend to become too mushy to make the situation clear. And I tend to get things like players whining about ‘you allowed me to do x with my Damned Big Hero trait last week, why can’t I do y with it this week…’

The real game killer though comes when the system is designed to constrain the players’ choices so as to meet up with ‘genre expectations’.

I’m not making any of this sound any better to you aging grognards am I?


Hmm. I’m now wondering why it is that PTA’s Edges didn’t throw me, whereas FATE’s Aspects do. Perhaps because PTA is a game that deliberately plays to stereotypes, while FATE looks as if it’s trying to be above all that?

But yeah, these absolutely aren’t games where you get consistency, which normally I love. PTA makes this explicit with the Screen Presence mechanic: this episode (usually a session, more or less) is declared in advance to be mostly about War Hero Janet, so for the duration she’s going to be awesome and the focus of the story (Screen Presence 3). Next episode it’ll be about someone else, and Janet will be more in the background (Screen Presence 1). There’s no way of saying “how accurately can she hit something with a thrown knife” that’ll give you the same answer in each case.

Now I actually want to run PTA…

The split for me seems to be that Watsonian is how I build and run a game and Doyleist is how I have to manage the table and recruit the players.

Folks seem to come to the table with an idea from their interactions in their own lives and they want a way to insert that into the game. Once it’s there they want it to behave consistently. When the player brings an idea to the table that is inconsistent Watson-wise (I want to play Arthur Dent in your battlelords of the 23rd century game) giving the player a Watsonian reason to walk the character back (you will likely feel useless and it won’t fit the tone) can prove unsatisfying. So the idea goes to the table for Doyleist reasons that they either could or couldn’t accept it (the mercenary company is shady. They would Shanghai a drunk without checking his resume. Just make sure you have a niche you can fill and we will accept that your purpose in combat is most often going to be to cower and run. We still think this can be a worthwhile time around the table.)


The thing I had most fun with in PTA was the initial brainstorming session and I never got farther than the Pilot episode.

In some ways I’d like to do a complete first season and then ask people how it would be best to continue.

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My main problem is usually differing degrees of expectation at the table as to what bits of the Real World have been imported in as Watsonian or Doylist. I suppose that can be expressed as which Writer’s Room is writing your Doylist bits? New Battlestar Galactica? Firefly? Red Dwarf??? And also what genre or real world building blocks are you constructing your Watsonian RP from and has that been communicated to everyone?

A Stargate game springs to mind, where two of us had the “we’re playing trained military professionals” mindset so were doing proper room clearance procedures and watching each other’s back, whereas another player and the GM clearly expected a D&D style “scream and leap” approach, regardless what it said on the character sheets about us being Navy SEALs or honourable Jaffa warriors.


I too found with PTA (and Diaspora and Burning Empires) that coming up with the premise collaboratively was brilliant. One of your Stabcon games being a great example - we came up with the travelling circus from the magical country which doesn’t exist any more. Fantastic premise, and the sort of setting I might have bought a source book for if it was a published game!

But actually playing PTA games has often been a frustrating experience. Because no-one is in control of the overall plot, there is no investigation element to the game, which is one of the draws of RPGs for me. Also I’ve played PTA where some players were very bad at providing opportunities for other characters to be in their scenes, so it was like we were playing 5 separate games.

Diaspora failed for other reasons. First of all it is Fate (hawk, spit). Second we each created our own interesting planet and collaboratively made reasons how they interacted (politics, trade, conflict, etc), but we spent every single session on one of the 6 planets, and never saw an iota of all that other stuff.


My feeling is that collaborative design really works better with the direction of a GM. One of my most successful campaigns worked that way. In Manse, I set up a framework, an ancient castle inhabited by several clans of magically gifted aristocrats. Then I had my four players each make up a clan/lineage of aristocrats, including style of magic, rules of authority, marriage customs, typical personalities, spell lists, style of dress, and various other things; that gave us the Houses of Light, Glass, Truth, and Life. I discussed things with the players and we agreed that a fifth house, the House of Darkness, would fill out the thematic coverage; so I created that one. I had each player create a senior aristocrat and a cadet aristocrat (one of the players, the one who created Glass, had her cadet come from Darkness) and draw up a family tree. I also had each player create a soldier serving in the castle guard and a servant. My players came up with storylines for their Houses, and I was able to get much of the first two years of play out of what they created; I also looked over their family trees and worked out which spouses came from outside and where they came from. The whole thing worked really brilliantly. But I wasn’t another player; I was the GM playing the usual large number of bit parts.

And the other time I tried that sort of setup it really didn’t work at all well; too many of the players were on entirely different pages. We really ended up with what amounted to four continuities for six PCs. I’m not sure what made the difference; perhaps that my players in the first campaign had backgrounds in fiction, fanfiction, and/or performing arts. Or perhaps that we were using Big Eyes Small Mouth for the first, and the latest Marvel game, which is much more narrativist, for the second; I don’t have as good an intuitive grasp of how that sort of game works.


I think PTA could work with a more proactive “Producer” (its term for the GM-lite role). I could see a division of responsibilities: the Producer has input into the investigative (procedural, in Robin Laws terms) plots and keeps at least parts of them secret (with a hand guiding the “information essential to the plot” scenes), while the players come up with their own interpersonal stuff (“a greater insight into the characters” scenes).

Of course PTA is a particularly hard game to run over videoconference, with its card draws and tokens being passed around the table.

Ah, OK. TV drama has never been a big part of my life. I also learned early on that when I tried to lift plots from books (as opposed to stealing smaller elements), it didn’t work. So I tend to feel that RPGs are a narrative form of their own, with their own set of genres and tropes, related to similarly-named genres in other media, but distinct from them.

The only time I’ve run a game in a setting detailed by someone else was my Laundry campaign. There, I immediately departed from its usual story structure and turned a background element from the fiction into the focus of the game, because that let me use an RPG structure without fighting against the setting.


This is my default state as well (indeed, it’s a Thing I Always Say on the podcast), but I try to be flexible. I’ve used quite a few settings designed by other people, but I think I’ve adapted non-game settings before. Surely I have. I can’t remember any, though.


I have run multiple campaigns inspired by narratives from other media: novels, graphic novels, television series. I haven’t always tried to emulate the narratives in the source material, though. In particular, I don’t try to emulate the plots, because I make no attempt to impose a plot on my games. If the game is episodic, I come up with a series of situations, and present them to my players, who decide what their characters will do; if it’s through composed, the situations emerge out of what they did in preceding sessions. But either way, the players shape the story in a big way.

The campaign of mine that most successfully emulated a source material was my Buffy campaign. I used the BtVS rpg for that, and it has a drama point mechanism that lets players spend points from a budget to arrange favorable coincidences. My players were all devotees and spent their drama points in a way that produced action consistent with the style of the show.

When I ran a Laundry campaign, it was intentionally a departure from the novels: It focused on an Australian team of people with special abilities acting as quasi-superheroes, in the style of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Planetary. I actually did this a few years before Stross did his take on superheroes. We had a special ops soldier, a deeply scary sorcerer, a genetically modified human, and a human who was in symbiosis with a djinn, with four very different sets of abilities.

But I could give a long list of campaigns I’ve done based on sources; after all, I wrote the book on how to do this for GURPS! I just don’t necessarily try to tell the same kind of story.

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I deal with the issue of characters being suited to the campaign in a radically different way, I think. When I’m gearing up to run the next cycle of campaigns, I hand around a list of proposed campaigns, and invite players to rank them. I run something that everyone is prepared to accept, and ideally that everyone likes. So then players have gotten advance notice of what they’re signing up for, including “you will play characters of type X.” Then I sit them down together to come up with character concepts, and I ask them to think about how their characters will work together. And if I think a concept won’t fit well, or if it violates the campaign specifications, I ask the player to come up with a different concept.

I tend to assume that my players have signed on to explore some specific world concept.

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I tend to assume that my players have signed on to explore some specific world concept.

I have learned - to my cost - never to assume any such thing. Even when the players have told me the specific concepts/themes they want to explore. In writing!

The prime example being Summerland, where pre-game prep involves the players ranking what themes they are interested in (choice of Magic, Horror or Hope) and ranking what style of play they are interested in (choice of Action-adventure, Investigative-discovery or Survivalist). They all chose Investigative-discovery then ran away from every investigative and discovery plot I offered them! :roll_eyes: