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Thinking Virtually

#38: The Realism Rathole

by Shannon Appelcline
January 7, 2002

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Problem #2: The Realism Rathole

If there's a word that's plagued RPGs of all types from the very start it's this one: realism. The basic question is: how do you balance a game that's realistic with one that's enjoyable?

To solve this issue you have to figure out what realism means exactly, and how realistic you actually should be in a game. I plan to look at a few different mediums, from musicals to movies, and see how they each treat reality. Also, I plan to look at innately unrealistic assumptions that are forced upon game designers by the MCRPG medium.

From Thinking Virtually #32, Five Things I Hate About You: Engineering Problems

To be honest, when I got started playing RPGs the idea of realism never really crossed my mind. I mean, I was playing Dungeons & Dragons, where my elf was slinging spells and buckling swashes. I was playing Traveller where my rogue trader was jumping between the stars, staying just one step ahead of the Imperium Scouts. I was playing Stormbringer where my demonic armor whispered sweet nothings into my ears as I drifted off to sleep.

No realism there, or so I thought.

Then I started hearing about Rolemaster, and one of the things people lauded about it was a "realistic combat system". I was intrigued, and so I investigated. Sure, the combat system was really complex (*cough*, Chartmaster, *cough*), but its veracity and believability did seem to offer something better than the fairly abstract "roll a d20" method of Dungeons & Dragons.

And, there was a lesson here--that realism was something that you wanted to consider when you were creating a roleplaying game. And, the same lesson is true for MCRPGs ... you need to think about realism when you're in engineering mode.

But, take that with some really big grains of salt.

Realism vs. Fun

I don't have any doubt that Rolemaster is a game that tried really hard to be brutally realistic. Weapon effects are broken down in painstaking detail, with the attack of each specific weapon cross-referenced across a set of 20 or so armor types. Simple maneuvers are broken down into tables that require multiple rolls. The character sheets look more like spread sheets.

It all can get tedious. In fact, in Rolemaster I think it sometimes does. Thus bringing us to the first caveat when engineering for realism: if you're not careful, you can eliminate The Fun Factor.

On the other hand, it's not fair to single Rolemaster out for its ultra-realism, because there are games that err just as far to the side of non-realism, and that's just as likely to destroy The Fun Factor for players. Ever played an Old West RPG where you had to empty your six-shooter and your friend's six-shooter and his friend's six-shooter, and your opponent was still dancing the jig? It can be pretty frustrating, and not fun at all, because that's not how physical reality works.

So, as a first rule when considering realism: be aware that engineering either too much or too little realism can damage the playability of your game.

What's Realism Mean Anyway?

When you're talking about realism, you really need to think a minute about what the word means to you. Sure, we could say that realism means those physical and social laws which apply to real life ... but when you think about it, the universe isn't even that stable.

I'm sure recent world crises have shown people that the social rules of Afghanistan under the Taliban were very different from the social rules of America under George Bush Jr. or Britain under Tony Blair. Anyone who's read Into Thin Air will understand how different physical rules atop Mount Everest are from those physical rules you expect in your cozy little home. (For those who haven't read Into Thin Air, in brief, you can't even take being able to get enough oxygen from breathing for granted On Top of the World.)

And, when you start looking at different mediums, you begin to realize that each different medium treats reality in a subtly different way. Consider the medium of movies. Life is all drama and interconnectivity--if you see a gun early in the move, it will be used before the movie is over; if a couple breaks up early in the movie, their relationship will be utterly clarified by the end. Reality just isn't like that. Guns go unused and relationships go unclarified forever. But that is that reality that we expect on the motion picture screen.

I think musicals offer an ever better example, because--recent musicals like Moulin Rouge and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou! excepted--they're patently unrealistic. For no apparent reason, normal people suddenly start breaking out into song and dancing down the street. Nowadays, something has grown cynical enough within our psyches that we're no longer able to accept this concept, but for decades the musical reality was accepted--just because that's the way it was.

I find it somewhat ironic that my own understanding of realism, and this article, began with Rolemaster because, in truth, it doesn't offer a realistic combat system at all. Rather, the Rolemaster combat system is based on (extensive) studies of live-action, SCA-like combat. Boffer games, as they're called today. And, to say that the experience of fighting with a foam sword is the same thing as being in real fear of your life because four and a half feet of tempered steel have just whizzed by your face is clearly missing the point. If the Rolemaster combat system is realistic, it's only realistic toward the medium of SCA combat.

Ah Yes, The Hobgoblins, My Friends

With all that said, let me offer a serious hypothesis: when people say that they want games to be realistic, I don't think what they actually want is realism. Oh, sure, they want to avoid the worst abuses of physical realism, like our poor gunfighter described above. But they don't want a game or a virtual reality that actually matches the way physical reality works.

Because, they couldn't possibly have it. Like I've already said, realism is a somewhat individual thing. It's subjective. The reality of the TV medium is different from the reality of the radio medium because of the different types of output they produce. The reality of the musical film is different from the reality of the horror flick because of the different stories they tell.

So, what do all those people really mean when they're talking about realism?


To find the best reality in your game set internal rules and stick to them. It's as easy as that. In the '50s and '60s people accepted the "reality" of musicals because they were consistent in the way that they behaved. Today we still accept the utter silliness of horror movies because they're consistent.

That's what reality really means: simple rules that are always followed.

Realism in the MCRPG Medium

That all begs the question, what is realism in a MCRPG? The answer is going to differ from one game to the other, but to build realistic games in the virtual realm you need to accommodate for the reality of the Internet.

Here's some of the top weirdnesses of MCRPG reality. Some result from the games being virtual. Some result from their being a leisure activity. Some result from their being games. But they're all things that need to be accommodated.

  • Discontinuity. Characters will come and go, missing important events because they're not playing all the time.
  • Priority. Things that are important to a player may influence things that are important to a character.
  • Attention. Attention, particular from gamemasters and other game designers, is a highly valued commodity.
  • Scarcity. Anything that is scarce will be valued in a MCRPG, even if in-game it's totally valueless.

Consider all the weird possibilities presented by these rules of virtual reality games: a character might be missing for weeks; a guild leader could miss their own guild meeting; troublemakers could mouth off just to get attention; or goblets could become very valuable because they're rare in a game.

These are definitely not the rules of our physical reality, but they are real rules in a virtual reality, and all things that you'll have trouble avoiding.

So, how do you deal with them? You engineer for them.

Engineering for Realism

And that, at last, brings us to the core topic of today's article: how you engineer games so that they're realistic. I think what I've offered thus far includes some good suggestions, but I'll reiterate them, talking a bit more specifically about the engineering tasks required. It's still going to be pretty abstract, however, because realism is something you need to consider for every system you build in a MCRPG, from combat to carpentry, from magic to movement.

1. Avoid Total Unrealism

This is the simplest of the rules. When you write game systems think about them for a second, and whether they'll totally piss off your players or destroy their suspension of disbelief. If so, you'll want to revise.

2. Engineer for the Reality of Your Medium & Genre After that you need to carefully study your medium and your genres. What are the rules of realism that affect you because you're a multiplayer game? An internet game? A game at all? A (fill-in-your-genre) game?

Castle Marrach, the first game at Skotos, has always suffered a bit from the fact that it didn't reflect the virtual reality of discontinuity very well. Characters disappear for a few weeks, because their players are busy--and other characters in-character flip out. The setting is so small and constrained that there isn't much real explanation for disappearance, so it's always a trauma. And yet, with just a simple background story ("time works differently for everyone in Marrach"), let alone any true engineering work, this whole problem could have been dealt with.

This is the type of consideration you'll need to offer in order to engineer for any weirdnesses that arise from the peculiar reality underlying your game. Want to deal with discontinuity well? Engineer a system that allows people to go on trips. Want to deal with scarcity? Engineer systems that make it as easy to purchase cheap objects as it would be in the real world. Etc.

At this stage your goal is to either engineer around the weird reality of your MCRPG or to engineer to explain it.

3. Keep it Consistent

Finally, as you're going through your systems, one-by-one, you need to constantly ask yourself: does this new system fit with the overall reality that I'm creating? If you engineer a combat system where it's almost impossible to die, but then a disease system where it's really easy, there's a problem.

Always consider all similar systems when you're engineering, and think about how they look next to each other.

Alternative Views

And that is my personal view on realism in games. But, as will be the case throughout this series on engineering problems, I've got alternative views. I've only got two planned this time around, which will be printed in the next two weeks:

  • Dirty Words: Keepin' It Real. by Travis S. Casey. Defining realism, and addressing the objections.
  • Consistent Lines. by Sam Witt. A pair of short pieces, one talking about the virtues of consistency and the other about overlapping realities.

And then, toward the end of January, we'll move on to engineering problem #3, The Competition Conundrum. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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