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A Philosophy of Realism


The D&D rules engine has often been criticized for being unrealistic. A simple test of the system--as described in "A Philosophy of Fightin' Words"--shows that the system actually derives reasonable results on a basic level. If the best test of realism is to test for reasonable results, then why is such a fuss made over the concept of "realism" in games, and why do some games get knocked for a lack of realism?


The answer to that question lies in the realm of verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is "the quality of appearing to be real." Game systems each present a different appearance of reality, and it is that appearance that gets judged, and usually not the results.

Each player has a different conception of what is important in combat, a different mental picture of what interesting things happen during a fight. Some see only the most basic actions of a fight when visualizing--each combatant strikes with a weapon, parries with a shield, and shuffles a bit during the fray. Some gamers picture a flamboyant, fluid fight, complete with combatants jumping on tables, swinging from chandeliers, and trading witty repartee. Some gamers picture all of the nitty-gritty details of a fight--footwork, the difference between weapon designs, the efficacy of different types of armor against specific types of weapons, the speed of the combatants, the reach of the combatants, and on and on. There are many, many different fashions in which combat can be imagined during play.

Games get labelled as "unrealistic" when the degree of detail offered by the system doesn't match that expected by the gamer. The criticism almost always arises when the level of detail provided by the game is lower than that the gamer prefers. Such criticism can also arise when the details offered are simply different than those preferred by the gamer. The game stresses the importance of footwork, for example, and the gamer thinks that's not very important--and why wasn't information on how each weapon works against each armor type provided?

A Specific Example

One of the most frequent charges levelled against the AD&D system is that the melee round is too long. A character or creature can obviously attack many times in the span of a minute, so the practice of attacking once or twice in a round is ludicrous and just not "realistic." A close examination of this will show that the complaint lies in the realm of verisimilitude.

The one minute round of AD&D allows for more than just a single attack or sequence of blows. The round allows for, well, a whole minute of fighting. A single attack roll may be all that is called for, but that roll accounts for the effectiveness of the entire minute of fighting. The roll measures how effective the character was in wearing down the opponent--whether the time was used efficiently or if the character was unable to gain any advantage.

It is easy to see how this criticism is a measure of verisimilitude, if one pictures the round in a different fashion. Imagine that the AD&D round is a series of short rounds, perhaps a dozen five-second rounds. Instead of rolling for each short round, the round-attack roll combination measures the overall effectiveness shown in all of the short rounds together. If the roll is unsuccessful, it can be said that the character failed to gain an advantage in any of the short rounds. If the roll is successful, it can be said that the character gained an advantage in at least one of the short rounds, and if the damage roll is high, perhaps the character could be said to have "won" all of the short rounds.

When the round is viewed in such a manner, it is easy to see how the criticism arises. The player wishes to measure a single attack sequence, whether a single blow or a series of strikes, feints, and parries that comprise a single attack. The game measures a whole minute's worth of such sequences. The difference between the two is striking, and it is that difference that causes the player to claim the game is unrealistic, and not any particular lack of realism on part of the game.

Gettin' Fiddly

How, then, can the game be adjusted to better fit the preferences of the player? There are a couple of different fashions in which this can be done. The first lies entirely in the realm of description and imagination, and the second in the realm of alteration.

The long round of the AD&D game simply begs to get described in dramatic fashion. The DM can take great pains to describe the ebb and flow of the combat at hand. All of the sort of detail that the players desire can be described, providing exactly the level of verisimilitude that is desired. This can all fit within the bounds of the system, with a successful attack roll leading the DM to describe the character gaining some advantage from positioning or sword feints and wearing the foe down.

The alternative method involves a great deal more work on part of the DM. The long round can be broken into a series of short rounds as described earlier. The attack odds, however, are geared to inflict damage according to the longer schedule, and that means the odds of success--damage inflicted--are lesser for each shorter round. This means the DM needs to alter either the attack roll odds or the damage inflicted via each successful attack. The DM should still describe all of the nuances of the fight within each of the short rounds.

Enjoy fiddlin',
Larry D. Hols

What do you think?

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