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”.