16 August 2013

On Realism - Realistic vs. Detailed

A recent comment by reader LS brought this to the forefront of my mind. The relevant bit is:

"I'm very strongly of the opinion that designing towards realism is generally a bad idea."

I disagree, but I think that might be because we disagree about what we mean by realism. In my experience, most attempts at "realism" are really attempts at detail. And detail is not really necessary for realism - in fact, it tends to create less realistic results, and tends to bog the game down.

LS - please don't think I'm taking you to task with this! I think this is a common thought in RPG design, and I think I'll show here that we're actually not far from the same page. If not, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

I think that elegance and simplicity is more or less a given in game design (although the popularity of 3e through 5e kinda disprove that... sigh...). Given an elegant, simple, fast-playing system, why wouldn't you want it to be realistic?

3e is a perfect example of a detailed, unrealistic system. With its millions of rules for everything from basket weaving to whether you can take a single step in a combat situation (yes, if you haven't played 3e, combat is managed down to the individual step - the mind boggles), 3e is so far from being realistic it is, in my opinion, unplayable. Detailed? Absolutely, incredibly detailed. Realistic? Not so much.
In fact, despite being way more complicated than the 0e or BECMI combat system, and significantly slower, the 3e system is actually LESS realistic.

For example, in BECMI or 0e, there's no formal system for combat maneuvers.

Because of that, the DM is free to adjudicate combat maneuvers realistically, using their life experience and understanding of the intricacies of the current situation. 3e says, "Well, you don't have the Shield Bash feat, so - despite being a skilled warrior, who, realistically, would be totally capable of punching someone while holding a shield - you can't do that."

Neither realistic, nor fun, but the feat system does add a lot of meaningless details.

I like reductio ad absurdum, so let's analyze the notion of realism in games through that tool.

Let's imagine a game system that is totally unrealistic. Hitting people with swords makes flowers grow. Shouting makes your arms longer. Standing still makes the moon get closer to the Earth. Jumping increases monetary inflation in China, and causes a collapse in housing prices in Chartres.

In short, it's totally impossible, as a player, to predict what effect your actions will have on the world. You can't make any informed choices, and therefore the game is no fun. You're just flailing about.

Now let's look at the contrary scenario - the DM is some kind of hyper-computer that has an atom-perfect simulation of the game world. Everything action has perfectly realistic results (realistic as defined by the game world - there can still be magic and dragons and stuff). All outcomes are computed instantly and relayed back to the player.

In this scenario, all of the character's life experience will be useful. They can make informed choices without worrying about the "rules", because their actions will have the same effect they would have in the real world. They simply need to role-play - the ruleset, despite being totally realistic, just gets out of the way and lets them play.

And this is the crux of why I think realism in RPGs is worth pursuing. A perfectly realistic RPG requires no system mastery, as everything simply functions in-game as it would in the real world. The players need know nothing of the game mechanics in order to make informed choices about character actions.

Now, obviously, we're not hyper-computers with worlds inside us, but that doesn't mean we can't strive for the ideal of a fast-playing game system with realistic results.

Also, keep in mind that what's "realistic" changes with the assumptions of the world. If your world has fireballs, that's fine - that's not "unrealistic". But if everything else is the same, and you can't use a fireball to start a forest fire in a tinder dry stand of trees, that's unrealistic.

We don't need reams of skills, rules for movement in combat, attacks of opportunity, etc. etc. etc. for a system to be realistic. Those are mechanics, those are details.

What we need to focus on is results. Calibrating the system for speed and accuracy.

What we need is a system where a peasant with a sword will be slaughtered by a trained swordsman. Where falling 40 feet puts you in serious danger. Where getting stabbed in the kidney is a serious problem, whether you're level 1 or 20. Where the player can drive a team of horses because they grew up on a farm, not because they have "Animal Handling +4". Where the players can leverage their decades of life experience.

Realism is plausibility, it's verisimilitude, it's internal consistency.

Realism is good.


  1. The one problem I see is that most people don't really have a good grasp on how real combat actually occurs. People use the RPG rules to learn about combat. So, if the combat rules say that daggers are three times as fast as a two-handed sword (which weighs 15 lbs BTW), then that's what they know. They can't adjudicate that realistically because they don't have the knowledge base.

    So gamers need detail, even if unrealistic, in order to function.

    1. "The one problem I see is that most people don't really have a good grasp on how real combat actually occurs. People use the RPG rules to learn about combat."

      That's a fair point, and probably another reason to have a combat system that gives results that are plausible.

      "(which weighs 15 lbs BTW)"

      Maybe you're referring to a specific ruleset, but no two-handed sword every weighed anywhere near that much.

      The biggest swords in common use (in the Renaissance, though, not the Medieval era - the rise of pike and shot led to the rise of some very large swords) were the Zweihanders of the Landsknecht.

      These swords were about 5-6 feet in length, and weighed about 4-6 lbs.

      "So gamers need detail, even if unrealistic, in order to function. "

      Yes, there's a balance to be struck, but people seem to have been fine with the level of detail available in D&D for the last forty years or so, which is basically restricted to "I hit. I miss".

    2. I believe the 15 pound sword bit was tied to the whole "people are learning about combat from RPG rules" and thus developing a skewed perception of the real world and how combat works. People in the know, know that swords intended for combat didn't way that much, but people only educated by RPGs take the "facts" from their games as truth assuming the developers had more knowledge of the medieval arms, armor and their usage.

    3. People who have no knowledge of history, warfare, economics or basic physics are not people I want to play with. They are probably the vast majority of the human population, but I like to game with grognard history/science buffs, even if I'm playing a Hong Kong shoot 'em up RPG where having to reload is caused by a failed die roll.

      RPG companies are faced with the difficulty of making games for the masses because they want to sell books, I prefer to simply not be in the company of jackasses and ignoramouses.

  2. I agree completely that the word 'realism' is better replaced with 'internal consistency'. I also feel that the idea of 'internal consistency' applies to every facet of a campaign.

    This has lead me to really focus on the 'pre-campaign' for lack of a better word. I feel that the level of detail and effort that you can provide before a game begins to the players helps solidify the tone and the measure of the campaign itself.

    The best example that I have of a situation where this very thing played out and caused a campaign to go sideways. It was a Champions ruleset game that was based around the idea of ninja clans engaging in shadow wars with each other. I gave about a half page synopsis to my group with an overall outline of the setting and then quietly and without much discussion the players settled down into two camps; Gritty and non-flashy characters versus over the top anime Naruto-esqe characters. I had personally envisioned a middle ground, but struggled at relaying that, and unfortunately things happened and the ship never really righted itself.

    I think it is a universal occurrence for a GM to have a player with a toon that 'does not quite fit' either they mechanically are problematic due to what they are wanting to do with their character and how they see things working or they don't mesh well with the setting. In all cases I feel it comes back to the GM as being the responsible party. The solution is simply to state 'This is how it is. Period.' Alexis over at 'Tao' talked about the concept of campaign expectations recently in his Exclusion post (http://tao-dnd.blogspot.com/2013/08/exclusion.html), more specifically pertaining to players meeting his expectations for the work required to participate in his games via record keeping. While specifically on encumbrance (for the bulk of the post), I feel that your post CT, Alexis', and the example I note are all sides of the elephant in the room of playing, albeit different parts of the same animal. In my example above I skimped on pre-game details because unfortunately I have allowed many of my players to phone in prep and have let them have a long leash when it comes to gaming, so I ended up having the same mentality. This same phenomenon could describe the 'there are rules for this, so I should (or also read MUST) use them', rather than just allowing the fighter to shield bash the orc because it feels right.

    One of Alexis' strong suits is that he can lay it out there regardless of how it is received. Which I agree is the likely better outcome in the long run, but it does as he happily points out, not win him any congeniality awards. But it does achieve the penultimate goal here; getting players and the GM on the exact same page about the campaign, what is expected, and what will be presented, which is tantamount to a great game in my humble opinion.

    I think it may be interesting to run a campaign simply based on nothing but collaborative story telling, no rolls, no rules other than the players describe what they want to do, the GM adjudicates. But enough rambling for the moment.

  3. A veteran of the edition wars rushing to defend 3e... there is no restrictions on bashing someone with a shield in 3e, all the picky rules were about who could do it well. Movement isn't broken down to the step either but it sure feels that way in the poorly explained reach and zone of control rules the game had. I don't think anyone ever made the claim 3e combat was realistic.

    All that rot out of the way as you note there is most certainly a difference between realistic and detailed. People have been conflating both for decades in RPG-land (yeah FGU I'm looking at you).

    1. Yeah, I was hyperbolizing a little, but only a little. I've definitely seen that when there's a feat for something, people tend not to consider it an option if they don't have the feat - even if the rules technically allow it with some kind of penalty.

      A lot of the 3e combat feats, though, fall into the category of "shouldn't every fighter be doing this routinely during fights??".

      And while movement is not always broken down to the single step, you do have a whole phase of combat (the 5' step) devoted to taking one step, and due to zones of control and attacks of opportunity, you are required to accurately account for every single step of your movement.

      Yeah, I'm not sure people are claiming that 3e is realistic on an absolute scale, but I think most proponents of 3e would insist that it's more realistic than B/X or 0e combat, and I just don't see that.

  4. First off, no offense is taken! I think it's fun that my comment sparked a dialogue.

    I agree with much of what you've written here. It's true that many games aiming for "realism" do so by creating overly detailed rules. I also agree that overly detailed rules systems are bad (though as pointed out above, you've made several errors regarding the rules of D&D 3.X. But this is not relevant to the discussion.)

    Your reductio ad absurdum is also fair. Instead of saying "Designing towards realism is a generally bad idea," I ought to have said, "Making realism a high priority while designing a game is a bad idea." Or at the very least, "produces games I do not enjoy."

    All of that having been said, we still disagree.

    Based on your post, my understanding of "realism" as you define it is "functioning as it would function in the real world, assuming the non-real elements (magic, monsters, gods, etc.) really existed."

    So if a 1st level fighter said to your Hypercomputer GM, "I want to throw my sword at the dragon as we flee on our horses," then the Hypercomputer GM would run the numbers. It would know that there was a 1-in-a-million shot of a thrown sword actually harming a dragon, and it would roll 1d1000000 inside of its head, and the player would miss. Because succeeding at something like that is unrealistic.

    I much prefer an unrealistic game where the player has a small, but significant chance to succeed at crazy tasks. Because the game isn't realistic. It's a pulp adventure where harsh realities take a back-seat to fun.

    1. As I clarified to JDJarvis, I was hyperbolizing about 3e a bit - I've played 3e and am tolerably familiar with the rules.

      "I much prefer an unrealistic game where the player has a small, but significant chance to succeed at crazy tasks. Because the game isn't realistic. It's a pulp adventure where harsh realities take a back-seat to fun."

      For sure - I never meant to imply that there's anything wrong with this, and I meant for my caveat "realistic as defined by the game world" to include game worlds where the fantastic is commonplace and the heroic possible - I should have been more clear.

      It's crucial, though, when playing in that kind of world, that the player's have a clear understanding of how things are different in the game world vs. our world. If a character can fall 50' in the game world and be more or less fine, that's something people should know, or they're going to be leery of cliffs, since I think the general assumption is that things work like they do for us.

      In my game, a lot of it IS about harsh realities, but I realize that's not for everyone. I think if a game system is designed to deliver realistic/plausible results, it's easy to dial back the realism.

      I don't think it's easy to add realism into a system that never had any - a lot of knowledge and research goes into making a game system that generates plausible results.

    2. I think I'd call that verisimilitude, rather than realism.

    3. Fair enough. I tend to use the terms interchangeably, but I really shouldn't.

      When I remember, I use the words verisimilitude or plausibility, as really that's what I mean.

  5. I like combat that is both realistic and detailed, and requires players to have some idea of how an Renaissance knight would fight to fight effectively as a Renaissance knight. There's nothing wrong with requiring system mastery, complexity, etc. In fact given my preferences for players and settings I actually like the fact that Burning Wheel is going to cause a lot of players to quit before they ever start. That means I don't have to waste my time with them. I don't want to play with any random dude, I will invariably find them boring and/or irritating. I want to play with mythology nerds who read Renaissance combat manuals and Chinese strategy books in their spare time. Such people are harder to find, but 1 game with them is better than a weekly shitfest with most D&D players.