The Philosophical Question
One of the fundamental skills required for the practice of Fiddly is that of understanding the rules to be fiddled. As has been mentioned in earlier installments of this column, there are basic precepts that each game is built upon. One must understand those precepts to practice effective Fiddly.
How does one develop this skill? There is no formal study guide, to my knowledge, that informs one what to examine when looking at games and what the results of such examination mean. One can only look at what the designer has implemented and then speculate on why that particular approach was chosen. The best course of study seems to be simply to listen to others when they comment on various mechanics, and begin to develop one's personal processes based on experience with many games and many comments.
To that end, this column will be examining game mechanisms and postulating the precepts on which they are based. There is, of course, room for disagreement in any discussion of this nature, but the commentary found here will provide a basis for comparison, at the least.
What is Real?
Many, many times gamers will be heard to discuss the supposed "realism", or lack thereof, of various game systems. This game or that is touted to be a good example of a realistic system, and that game is laughable because it is not. Adherents of the latter game then chime in that the system is completely realistic--at least, when they play it--and that the former games burden play far too much without adding any realism. The discussion bounces back and forth, full of fire and vitriol. What then, is the case with this thing called "realism"--can it appear in games and should it?
It is my opinion that such a question is irrelevant to the whole matter. Lest the protests erupt violently, I'll explain why I maintain that position. My opinion is based entirely on my perception of the intent behind mechanics in games.
I believe the sole intent behind the inclusion of any mechanic in a game is to allow the players to generate a play effect. That is, a skill roll is called for to generate a result for any attempt by the character to use that skill. A dodge roll is called for to generate an effect when a player attempts to dive out of the way of the rolling boulder. The magician attempts to cast a spell and the player needs to know if the attempt was successful--what effect results.
How, then, does the concept of "realism" relate to this? What is it that gamers can point at and say "that's realistic" with some agreement? I believe the results garnered by the system are the proper measure of realism. Using a fist-fight as an example, a reasonable--"realistic"--outcome is that one of the combatants wins after the other is rendered incapable of continuing or unwilling to proceed. Both combatants will likely be bruised and bleeding, and both will certainly be fatigued to some degree.
A complex approach to arriving at this result involves a rationale of mirroring everything that happens in an actual fight. It is believed that each punch must be reflected in the system, and a host of factors that affect the success of each strike must be accounted for by the mechanics. A system based on this precept will provide a great amount of detail on every action--whether getting the jump on an opponent with a complex initiative system or considering the type of blow being struck, the perceived target of the blow, the relative movements of the combatants, and so on. It is believed that all of this detail must be reflected in the rules to allow for the result to be realistic.
At the other extreme, a simple system concentrates mainly on the results themselves, and expects the Game Master and players to fill in the details as they see fit. The individual strikes in a fight aren't important, just the effect of the whole series of strikes used in the fight. If the whole series of strikes is more effective than the series of attacks launched by the opponent, then the first combatant can expect to win. With this in mind, mechanics are designed to reflect longer stretches of time and many attacks grouped together. The measure of the system is entirely the results generated.
Both of the approaches mentioned above have now given us the results postulated at the beginning--one combatant is incapable of continuing the fight and the other suffers from various blows and fatigue. Which of these can be said to be more realistic, then? They provide the same results, so why should it be said the former is more "realistic" than the latter?
I believe the proper term that should be used in discussions of this sort is that of "verisimilitude." The detailed system involves greater verisimilitude--the individual actions taken during the fight appear in all their . . . glory, we shall say. The system isn't any more realistic than a simpler system, simply because the results generated are the same. The fashion in which those results are garnered, however, differ greatly and that is the key distinction between systems.
This is not to say that a game can't be unrealistic, for such is possible. The results the system generates can be completely unreasonable, and that would be the basis for such a critique. That, however, is the topic of a different column. . . .
Philosophy and Fiddly
In the next column we'll examine a combat system often derided for being "unrealistic." We'll see if the label fits when the system is examined closely.