Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Not Realism - Consistency, Believability, and Logic

So all the cool kids are writing about realism in fantasy gaming (such as faoladh and FrDave, who links to still more posts by other cool kids.) Why should I be left out?

My thoughts on it are pretty simple: Realism isn't the goal in fantasy gaming (or indeed, most other RPGs, even hyper-realistic ones!)

It's verisimilitude. That is, the seeming of truth. ("Truthiness" works, too.) The world, the results of actions, and the logical leaps must feel true, feel consistent, be believable, and seem logical.

Consistency. Stuff that's true now in the game world should generally remain true unless acted on by an outside force. Spells might allow you ridiculous control over forces that don't even make sense realistically ("I'm an Earth Mage." Er, 4 elements? Or needing "Charm Monster" vs. "Charm Person.") There may be orcs, griffons, and demons who come from another plane to wreak evil because they're evil. You might be able to chop up robots with your magic sword without dulling its edge or shoot a personal disintegrater at guys who can fly and punch out tanks. These aren't deeply realistic things. But they should pretty much act the same game session to session. If they do, they're easier to accept.

Believability. Seems crazy, but the results of your actions and actions of others in the game world must be believable. Not real-world believable. Just that they shouldn't snap you out of your suspension of disbelief and your acceptance of a world with color-coded dragons and guys who can shape rock with command of magical forces hunting treasure in a dungeon instead of mining. Once you've set your ground rules and made them consistent, the results of those ground rules must be something that flows from those rules. If you have A and then B, players will expect C. If you have magical items (A), and people willing to buy them for money (B), then it's reasonable to say some people might be selling magical items, too (C). If you stop at B and say, no, there is no C, it's going to take some explanation and that explanation is probably costing you game time you could spend killing owlbears.

Logic. The game world and its rules should be logical, even if based on purely spurious logic ("Since there are dragons that breathe fire there must be dragons that breathe lightning!") Following the logic of your game world and game rules lets players follow it, too, and invent their own consistent details and come up with inventive solutions to problems.

If you hand players A and C, they should be able to guess the existence of B and act on it. If it's actually Q, you're not only going to snap them out of willing suspension of disbelief but also destroy the value of their own logical thinking. Why puzzle out the solution, or look for connections, or try to extend the logic of your powers to accomplish something new if the result is going to be illogical and inconsistent and random? This can be fun, but it'll cost one of the really cool things about RPGs - getting to say "If I was my guy, I'd do this . . . " and have an understanding of what can happen. If you basically say, there are dragons and spells so anything goes and I don't need logic, consistency, or believability of results, I think you're selling your game short.

That's what I think my players mean when they say "This seems pretty realistic." It doesn't matter if it's dwarven weaponmasters bashing skeletons or Delta Force taking down a building. What matters is that it feels real, it feels consistent, and that players get to feel like their actions have results that make sense within the imagined reality you play in. Break that, and you get an "unrealistic" game not matter how real or unreal your subject matter is.

In my opinion.


  1. I will say that GURPS Worminghall is perfect for helping with believability, at least to me. I think having a medieval town like that grounds the dungeon delving part and helps to keep its medieval feel. It is a city with fantasy and magic that makes sense and I was surprised by how good and useful it is.

    But as far as logic and consistancy goes I agree with you that it is important for keeping player interest. If things seem to random then players feel that they have no way to solve the dungeon.

  2. As a US Army Veteran, I posted a bit of an angry rant on "realism" back in February, essentially pointing out that noone in their right mind would want to realistically experience combat. Relevant excerpt:

    "In war, people you love die, and they don't come back with an XP penalty. They die horribly. They scream in excruciating pain and there's no such thing as cure critical wounds. Truly evil people genuinely want to hurt you and everything you care about. You fight not for adventure, but because you have to protect what you care about. Sometimes you do shitty and horrible things to other human beings just to survive."

    I suppose you could argue that some gamers are not in their right mind but I think you're probably more accurate when you just say that what we colloquially refer to as "realism" is probably more about "consistency" :). I agree that such things help almost any game. Except maybe Paranoia.

    Wait, did you hear something?

    1. Well, no one really wants the consequences of combat, even if they want the experience to be otherwise seemingly real.

      As for Paranoia, consistency works there too. It just has to be consistently unfair. :)

  3. Heehee! I'm a cool kid!

    Anyway, to the point of this missive. Damn you! I wanted to write this post in a couple of days. Now all I have to do is provide a pointer to it. You have made me not have to work…

    Oh, wait.


  4. After watching the police take down the shooter in NYC and watching his body simply shut down and in a matter of seconds, yeah I agree with you Mr. Blue.

    I guess I don't quite understand how one can effect realism in fantasy (contradiction in terms?) but an internal logic in fantasy makes sense.

    Not sure I'm making sense. It's after midnight. :p

  5. Back in the day, the stock argument in the UK was often "fantasy games should try to be realistic" "oh yeah, how realistic is a guy throwing fireballs" - and the answer was more or less what you've said, that what matters is that things should work in a reasonably consistent way over time. (Though this seems to be in conflict with the pretty wild and freewheeling impression one gets of some of Gygax's games, with random bits of high-tech and other weirdness popping up.)

    1. Yeah. I hate the "wizards can throw fireballs, so therefore nothing needs any justification at all" approach.

      And Gygax's games were at least consistently odd. It's fine if sometimes it's a metal room, sometime it's spaceship; sometimes it's a golem, sometimes it's a robot. That's just an odd game. It's the flow of believable consequences of the weirdness that makes it okay.

      Take the Wand of Wonder. Use it, and weird stuff happens. That's fine. But it's not like you roll on the Wand of Wonder table at random times for random things.


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