The new and improved defender of RPGs!

Friday, 27 March 2015

10th Anniversary Classic Rant: More On "Realism"

Perhaps I was a bit hyperbolic in my last post about this, but I stick by the essence of my argument with a slight modification: It seems that in RPGs, either the "realists" are very poor game designers, or the medium of RPGs itself cannot convey the "real" very well.

First of all, no RPG is meant to be a pure simulation. It's meant in its first function to be a game. This is why, shockingly, the best designer of vehicle rules for an RPG is NOT an aerospace engineer. The aerospace engineer might know more about vehicles than anyone else on earth, but in reality the best writer for vehicle rules would be a GOOD GAME DESIGNER.

And also shockingly, "experts" in their given subject are often too obsessed with said subject to maintain perspective as to what makes good game design. That is to say, if he is an expert in computer hacking, he is likely to make "computer hacking rules" so fucking complex that players will have to spend twenty-five minutes and read seven distinct tables of results to complete the action for "my PC turns on his computer".

Now, that means that generally speaking, the concept of game playabilty trumps "realism" every time, EVEN among fans of realistic RPGs. And I stick to my guns in saying that most people who claim they want "realism" in their RPGs really mean that what they want is complex rules that are internally consistent and playable, that help them visualize or complement their experience of the game, and only then within the specific parameters of what interests them.

That's the other thing: people who want what they call "realism" are usually only interested in certain facets of their game being "real". No one who plays RPGs wants absolute realism. They might want enough rules on vehicle construction and combat to fit an entire 200-page manual, but they sure as hell don't want a 200 page manual of complex rules on cooking or going to the bathroom.

Which gets us back to 'simulation'. Most RPGs are emulations. I don't disagree with that at all, on the contrary, I think there's no such thing as an RPG that isn't an emulation. The thing is, almost every RPG is either an emulation of a literary or fantasy genre (fantasy in the sense of an unreal psychological fantasy, not swords&sorcery type fantasy); NOT an emulation of actual reality. So even in an RPG like Shadowrun, you want combat rules to be "simulations" of what you think of in your head when you think "cool cyberpunk battles with high-tech guns blazing all over the place", not what would be a real firefight.

Even in historical setting RPGs, the most arguably "realistic" of all, you are still looking for emulation of a fantasy, not emulation of historical fact. You are looking, when you run a campaign based entirely on the historical Roman Empire, to do "I Claudius" with scheming senatorial politics, or legionaries conquering Gaul; not to be a Roman peasant dying at 28 from dysentery.

So even games where the emphasis APPEARS to be on realism is really only looking to be an accurate simulation of CERTAIN memes that make the particular fantasy emulation you want to achieve work. You might want really detailed "realistic" information on psychology and mental illness if you're running Call of Cthulhu; whereas if you're running a game set in the wild west you probably only need a moderately detailed set of rules for psychology, if any. So what you're talking about is DETAIL, not realism.

In fact, this is often one of the things that fucks up RPGs, either on the level of the system itself or on how people run it. If you are doing an RPG about post-apocalyptic road warriors a lá Mad Max, you probably WANT to have really detailed vehicle combat rules. On the other hand, if you're doing an rpg about a modern-day occult conspiracy, having 200 pages of vehicle design&combat rules will probably get in the way, be a needless waste of space, and kill your game's "feel" if you try to actually implement those rules.

Even in situations where it might be appropriate to have detail, you don't want "realism" that kills the fun. I remember with no fondness whatsoever my first and only experience of "actual play" with Rolemaster. It was a game of "Spacemaster" (I think that's what the sci-fi rolemaster rules were called?) with a DM who was a great believer in the "realism" of the rolemaster system and an absolute stickler to those rules. We spent nearly two hours making characters for the game, started out on a spaceship going to some planet. The DM made a bunch of rolls cross-referencing the near-endless book of tables, informed us that the starship we were in hit a meteor, and we all died. End of game.

Was it realistic? I'm not sure. Was it complex? Very. Did it totally suck donkey balls? Yes.

On the other hand, nothing would fuck up a game about futuristic Giant Robot pilots than having a one-die-roll resolution system for all Mecha piloting and combat. If you have dedicated as many pages to swordfights and swordfighting maneuvers as you have to gunfights in your wild west game, you better have a damn good reason for doing so. In other words, the areas of simulation you choose to apply a lot of detail to are the areas that the game is expected to emphasize in play.

Again, Shadowrun contains an excellent example of this. Why are Riggers important in the world of Shadowrun? Because there are sophisticated rules dedicated to Rigging. If Shadowrun had never had sophisticated rules on Rigging, it could still have existed as a game, you just wouldn't have anyone playing Riggers and it would be assumed that vehicle piloting was not an important aspect of the Shadowrun setting/game.

What you choose to make detailed in an RPG determines what will be important in that RPG.

So there is NO RPG out there that attempts to be truly "realistic" or a real "simulation" of real life. "REALITY: The RPG" would in fact be a gigantic manual with thousands of pages where the rules were EQUALLY SOPHISTICATED for every aspect of your PC's existence, from reading a book to going to the bathroom to cooking noodles, to driving a car, to getting in a knifefight. That would be "realism". That would also be boring and unplayable as all fuck.

Fortunately, no one really wants that. What one wants is DETAIL, where and when detail is appropriate. It makes sense that most RPGs dedicate one or more entire chapters to combat, while dedicating no more than a few lines if any to cooking. Because most people want to play a game where there will be a genuine expectation of conflict, but not a genuine expectation of an Iron Chef competition in every adventure. If someone wanted to make "Iron Chef: The Cookery" RPG, then you would expect that RPG to have an entire chapter or more dedicated to cooking, and only a couple of lines if any dedicated to combat rules.


Currently smoking: Ben Wade Canadian + Image Latakia

(originally posted July 27 2005)


  1. Did you ever read the Dragon Magazine review of Spacemaster? The very same thing happened to the reviewer.

    1. I remember reading that, a couple of years after that had happened; I think it was an obvious flaw in the system: damage to starships was too lethal.

  2. Maybe they wanted to emulate a reality wherein starships are likely to kill you so you never go aboard one. Never seen Spacemaster. Seems bizarre that a chart of random results could end a game.

  3. Yeah good article. I agree - you want consistency and detail, rather than realism. The rules can definitely make a difference to how you play and enjoy the game, but they shouldn't be the end in and of themselves.

  4. Again, the point of a good game design is to achieve genre emulation, not "realism". The game should feel and play as a typical tale/film/whatever of the genre. For example, Star Wars combat shouldn't be too lethal for heroes and villains (and storm troopers should miss most shorts fired at the heroes) while Alien(s) combat should be far more lethal especially if emulating the original movie and not the action-packed sequel. Otherwise it will break the genre and destroy the player's fun.

    1. Is that what stormtroopers do when they run out ammo? And all this time I thought they went commando.