Tuesday, 3 May 2016
Classic Rant: Emulation and Realism
Some people still seem to be unclear what's the difference between "emulation of genre" and "realism". Someone recently made the argument to me that there is an "unwritten assumption" in a game setting that anything that isn't explicitly known to be different in the setting would work according to normal "realistic" physical or social laws.
Except that's not the agreement. The agreement is "everything not explicitly included should work in such a way that it doesn't fuck up the genre being emulated". THAT has to be the agreement, or you're ruined.
For example, comics. If everything that was unwritten about comics were assumed to be normal physics, then the whole superhero idea would come crashing down. I had one player in a supers game who's a science geek, and he started pointing out that his speedster should be able to do stuff using the force of inertia that would basically have made him, and not the superman-type, by far the most power character in the game.
Ditto on the social/psychological level. Again, in a comics world we're pretending that people are reacting to superheroes in an extremely nonplussed way most of the time (see "Watchmen" for a more accurate depiction of how humanity would deal with, or rather fail to deal with, a real superpowered being), and yet burst into panic at other moments. Whether they do so or don't so is not on account of real-world psychology but what makes sense in crazy comic-book world.
Things that are not explicitly described in the rules but where someone could bring in the "realism" question (the blast patterns of fireballs, the chance of a weapon breaking, the speed of reading something, the hunting radius of a dragon's lair, etc) are all things I would not make "realistic" rules for but that I would house rule, and those house rules would have as their PRIORITY ONE not to fuck up the game and setting. "Realism" bullshit slows down the game, lets would-be smartasses essentially cheat by warping the mechanics in way clearly contrary to the original intent and all game balance, and generally have very little pay off in return ("well, it took us six hours to figure out the "realistic" burn pattern of that fireball, and it killed half the party as it turns out in the most boring way possible, but on the plus side Melvin the Wizard is now a wankerish hell-spawning monstrosity that makes every other PC in the group useless, and the whole thing is technically slightly more accurate even though there are MILLIONS AND MILLIONS of other things we haven't bothered to consider in the fucking fruitless search for "realism"").
It fucks up setting, too. A good rule of thumb I use is "is there any other character with the same abilities as the PCs who has done this, or gives a shit about it? no? Then its not "realistic" to the emulation of the setting".
Example number one: Melvin the wizard wants to claim that "realistic" physics should let him do some special trick with a fireball that allows him to take down a large number of opponents at once. Now, there are probably a million other magic-users n the game setting, and if Melvin's player was right, and this was "realistic" in the emulation of genre, then either every single one of those wizards (and all others throughout past history) is a moron, or they'd all be using this same tactic and the world would be a fiery hell hole. So doing what is "realistic" in this case DIRECTLY DAMAGES Emulation of Genre (because Melvin getting what he wants means that either something no one had seen in the entire campaign is actually totally common place and all the consequences of that ought to be present everywhere, creating a paradox; or the entirety of wizards everywhere are fucking morons, which kind of ruins the whole feeling of the wizards being, you know, NOT morons).
So the likely answers to this situation are: a) Realism sucks and b) Melvin's Player is a slimy little dipshit who's trying to argue about "realism" so that he can get away with a munchkin move that would unbalance the game and ruin everyone's fun in the long term.
"Internal consistency" does not actually have much to do with "realism". If you add something that is "realistic" but that doesn't actually match with what you see in the setting, where it doesn't make sense that it wasn't already a truth, then you fuck up Emulation for the sake of chasing the endless questing-beast of "realism".
If someone says it's "realistic" that Katanas are really superweapons compared to normal swords, and they are at all available, why isn't every single high-level fighter using one?
If someone says it's "realistic" that dragons need x amount of territory to use as hunting grounds, then why have dragons either not gone ahead and taken over the game world to satisfy their vast needs, or have become extinct by now from starvation?
Emulation and realism are not the same thing. Often, they're opposed.
(Originally posted November 6, 2010)