Realism is a Technique

Started by Simon C, November 08, 2008, 05:33:08 AM

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Simon C

"Realism" was kind of the Holy Grail of a lot of my early play.  The group I played with through most of high school were all friends of mine, and we had fairly similar goals in play, although gameplay was also riddled with a whole host of problems.  We went through a lot of different systems trying to find the "most realistic" system to play with, assuming that a very realistic system would fix all the other problems that we experienced at the table (like the whole "power gaming" issue, CA conflicts, and so on).  We were convinced that realism could only come from system - the canard that "system is the physics of the game world".  We went through D&D, Palladium, and a few others, before settling on Rolemaster as our system of choice.  Rolemaster, because it was the most complex system we'd played with, was assumed to also be the most realistic.  We played a lot of Rolemaster, looking for that ideal play we were expecting, and not finding it.  A lot of our play kind of fell apart at that point, because though we were playing what we thought was the perfect system, we still weren't getting the play we wanted, and we didn't know how to get it.

Vampire was the system that really broke the love-affair with realism.  Our first game of Vampire was amazing! We through realism to the wind, and just had fun, playing with the setting, being bad-ass Vampires in an exciting world.  While further play didn't bear out the game's initial promise (the more we followed the books' advice on how to play, the less fun we had), it did convince me (and to some extent the others I was playing with), that realism provided by system was not the magic bullet for fun that I had thought. 

I drifted through a lot of systems and a lot of groups at that points, and experienced a lot of different approaches to "realism" in games.  I'd kind of discarded the concept as of any use in game design, and of dubious value as a goal in play.  Recently, my thinking has kind of evolved on the subject, and I'm coming back to the idea of realism, not as a goal, but as a technique.

When people say they're looking for a "realistic" system, or that they try to make their game "as realistic as possible" (whether through design or GM technique at the table), I take that to mean a strongly Simulationist agenda, and that many of the design features and techniques that complement Sim play are being conflated with "realism".  I know that my early play (when it was coherant at all) was Simulationist, and that we confused realism with support for that agenda.  Instead of using realism as a tool to support our Sim agenda, we mistook realism for the entire goal.  I won't hold this responsible for the entirety of the problems with my early gaming, but it was a problem.

What I find more interesting (and more complex) is the role of realism in other agendas, specifically a Narrativist agenda (there's probably a lot of material in the role of realism in Gamist early D&D play, but I don't feel qualified to talk about that).  For a long time, possibly motivated by my early experiences with Vampire, I thought of games as existing on a kind of continuum, with "Story" at one end, and "Realism" at the other.  After reading a bunch of theory, I think I kind of kept the same continuum, but relabled them "Narr" and "Sim", and added Gamism as a kind of mutant offshoot.  Needless to say, that's a really broken understanding of CA, but even as I began to understand CA better, I think I kind of left realism out in the dark of Sim play, without really examining its usefulness in Narr play.

Actually, it was watching TV that got me thinking about realism again.  I'm a big fan of two Police dramas - "The Wire", a show about the Baltimore Police Dept, systemic failure, and individuals' roles withing it, and "The Sheild" a show about LA cops, corruption, ambition, and power.  They're interesting shows for both using similar material to explore often quite different themes, and approaching their material in really different ways.  A scene from one show could never be mistaken for a scene from the other.  One of the things that differentiates the shows is their take on their representation of realism.  While "The Sheild" is more-or-less realistic (no over-the-top action heroics), it approaches its subject as a painter approaches paint: Gangs, street violence, cops and crimianals are the medium "The Sheild" uses to tell a story about integrity, lies, and power.  The subject material is background to the real story.  "The Wire" has a far more intimate relationship with realism.  Realism becomes part of the theme of the show.  That the characters and situations encountered can turn out in ways you'd never expect, that they don't seem to respect the conventions of television drama, and seem to leap off the screen as "real" and human, this creates a theme of its own: The undeniably humanity of people in these dire situations.

I think that a lot of Narrativist-supporting games have a tendancy to focus on "Story", in the sense of resolving central character issues, at the expense of "theme" in the sense of exploring the situation of the characters, of understanding their issues as part of a larger context.  I know that, for example, "The Mountain Witch" (Which is a game I've played a lot) has a laser focus on resolving Dark Fates, and extra things, like the situation driving the Ronin into their mission, the fate of the Village that hires them, and so on, are grist for that mill.  I wouldn't change a thing about The Mountain Witch, but I can see the scope for a much more realistic approach to gaming.  Of course, a lot of these games can absolutely support a realistic approach.  I think Sorceror is a game that can absolutely do this, and I think would benefit from it.  Realism, in these games, is a technique that can be used to broaden the scope of the game, and to explore the theme of the game more broadly. 

I guess I can't really see the implications of play for this, but I think it would be interesting to explore the issue of realism more, and to experiment with it in play.

Eero Tuovinen

It's a good topic you're wrangling with here, but very wide, too. I'm hesitant to blast in with a big response and try to sketch out my own understanding of the issue. Could go anywhere and mess what you're trying to say.

What your point seems to boil down to is that "realism" is an aesthetic preference. This seems to hold water pretty well, considering how that's how it is basically dealt with in other mediums. However, there are other, morally imperative things to realism in literature, so perhaps considering that would be fruitful? When realism blasted into the literary scene during the latter end of the 19th century, it was not necessarily that radical because it refused to follow conventional plot arcs, present a pretty and aesthetic setting and introduce characters who could be cleanly slotted into well-known roles in story structures the readership knew by heart. Perhaps the more explosive idea with realism was that it purported to be a more direct, more real source of the Truth: these are the people living in your world, these are the things they think, this what they do. And if the truth is ugly, at least it's real. Realism claimed that literature should strive for reality to elevate something since then considered a source of moral instruction into a more direct political tool.

Is this literary realism a relevant thing when considering the appeal of realism in roleplaying? Probably not on the large scale, but I can certainly imagine how a certain sort of game could make it a linchpin of the presentation - there are games that work a bit like this, actually: Death's Door, I feel, presents itself somewhat in a light that argues for the player to take the game more seriously because it's more real. Toisten tie, a game in development by a friend of mine, Sami Koponen, definitely sets itself on the pedestal, claiming that it's actually a moral responsibility for you to take it seriously and play it, because it's telling you the Truth about the people living on the streets of your town. Twilight 2000, also, derived its mandate from realism in a most blatant manner: the game could work like this and require these things from the player, because the player and the game both wanted the Real Thing, even when the truth might be ugly, violent and perhaps politically inconsiderate.

Anyway, that's just one way realism might surface in games: do you want to discuss other ways realism is used in roleplaying, or did you have some more general point about it that you wanted to expose?
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Simon C

I actually know very little about literary realism, so that aspect of the issue is really interesting to me.

I guess my point is this: Realism isn't a goal of play in and of itself, it's a technique.  Traditionally, I at least considered it a strongly Sim supporting technique, but increasingly I'm seeing ways that realism as a technique could be useful to other agendas.  My questions are:

What are some at-the-table practices that produce the effects of realism?

What things can you achieve with realism?

What games already use realism in interesting ways?

What have your experiences been with realism?

Eero Tuovinen

My experiences with realism as a verbalized, explicit concept on the table in a roleplaying game... I have to say that the overall most important part realism has played in my rpg experience has been as a deep-rooted convinction that unsatisfying and unwanted elements of play are caused by insufficient amounts of realism, which in this context means adherence to how the given game world "would" work. This is a major element in my relationship to stuff like D&D, which basically kills this sort of realism immediately and pees on its grave. I remember well how I used to respond to unsatisfying experiences of play by removing faulty rules or instituting new ones during the long '90s. Even today I often work with and stand convinced that a careful look at realistic forces can inspire the GM or game designer in executing more balanced and satisfying events than just inventing things whole.

The basic framework for the sort of realistic rpg play that is the dominant traditional school in Finland starts with a GM getting inspired by a setting and choosing a rules system to facilitate play that reflects the setting in question; here "setting" is basically a genre and imaginary world wrapped in one. "Realism" in this context is adherence to the setting. Play is judged good or bad on the basis of whether the players managed to create content compliant with the setting. Horror stories are told of when play derails into something that is ridiculous and unrealistic from an external viewpoint. As can be seen, this sort of play is basically straightforward Simulationism in its pure form.

However, that's just the most common form of using realism hereabouts. "Realism", the concept, can also be an effective tool of other agendas. The way I usually see it used in relation to Gamism is as a hammer you use to bash easy solutions and constrain the playing field into the issue at hand. For example, it is very, very natural interaction for me as a GM in a fantasy adventure game to simply refuse the players from lugging the large inventory they want to take with them on an adventure trip on logistical grounds - when I make this call, I'm not thinking of whether the challenge is ruined or balanced by this act, but whether it's realistic that the heroes would manage a wagonfull of stuff from point A to point B. I'm currently playing a Gamist fantasy adventure game that constantly uses realism as a GM guide in decision-making - I'm completely agnostic about success or failure, I'm only interested in providing challenges and refereeing the world, letting the bodies fall where they may. In this process realism is a crucial guide to when and what challenges and solutions may arise, because that's at the core of the Creative Agenda: we're interested in seeing whether these heroic alter egos of ours can best this cunning wizard, so the playing field needs to be realistic. Allowing an unrealistic solution to creep in basically voids the challenge altogether, because then it's not these heroes against this wizard, but this player against this other player, or against nothing. Compare this logic with another sort of gamist play where the suitability of challenges is judged on the basis of fairness or mechanical considerations. Having it all hinge on realism enables a deeper type of satisfaction when setting up to deal with the challenge - situation immersion, if you will.

Hmm... I could sit here and write all day about how realism is used in different games, this is a really wide topic. My central take-away point about this is, perhaps, that "realism" is most useful to consider not as a single technique, but a family of techniques or even a technical agenda - it's a viewpoint of approach that might in turn inspire different solutions for different situations.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Paul T

Eero made some great points about Realism as it relates to literature, so I'll stay out of that topic. What remains to be said? I'll give it a shot:

I think many, many gamers out there are 100% convinced that their dissatisfaction lies in the lack of "realism" provided by their chosen game system. I used to be one of them, too.

I'm going to write some stuff off the top of my head, so bear with me. I may be missing important points--but this is how I'm seeing it right now.

So, I see two angles on this issue:

*You're Ruining the Game!*

You're playing and stuff happens that you feel is "unrealistic", ruining your enjoyment of the game. It breaks your suspension of disbelief, detaching you emotionally from the game and the story. This totally applies across Agendas, even Gamis: if you're facing some challenge, things acting in a way that you feel they shouldn't behave might make you feel like you've been cheated: "Hey, that weighs 300 lbs! How come it's not sinking?" Or it might make the challenge feel too easy, for same reasons. "Realism" is stepping on your fun.

So, when stuff happens that doesn't match your view of the fiction and how it should act, your enjoyment of the game tends to shrivel. There are three ways that can happen:

1. You and another player have different ideas of how something "should be". This is why we can have arguments not only about whether a human can outrun a wolf, but also about how "realistic" the size of your Fireball spell is in relation to mine. It's important to realize in these situations that no one is *trying* to ruin the game--your assumptions are just different. Contrast with #2:

2. A player, possibly frustrated with the game, does or narrates something in-fiction that is a total violation of how you perceived the fiction to work. For example, one might realize that using Advantage X in combination with the Strength statistic allows a character to survive a fall from any height. You don't want players ruining the game like this! You want "realistic" rules that will STOP those players from making those choices. However, in this case, your problem is not really with the rules but with the Social Contract. Everyone needs to be on board with what is expected from the game and the fiction, or you're going to have a lot of problems. Another group might really enjoy finding those little loopholes or weird effects in the ruleset and applying them in creative ways.

3. The application of the system itself creates outcomes that are not logically possible, silly, or just hard to believe. I remember playing the most recent edition of GURPS about 3-4 years ago. It became difficult to "stick with" a serious tone when our expert sniper's shots kept hitting targets in the crotch (a little problem with the hit location table!).

I'd say the most important part is a shared understanding within the group: what kind of game are we playing? What kind of fiction are we going to create?

The rules may or may not contribute positively. When the system allows the players to apply constraints to fictional events in ways that are logical and consistent (e.g. werewolves are always stronger than regular humans), this can reduce some of those "suspension of disbelief" problems.

However, assuming that more complex or more detailed systems are more likely to help is not always right. Consider:

* A complex, detailed system focused on emulating the physics of the gameworld presents you with many, many chances to create an "illogical" result at every step of the way. Each time you invoke the mechanics in such a system, the chance for a game-breaking result is present. You roll and find out that the shot goes through the target's left hand... but only the target's head was visible. What do we do? Etc.

* A system that does not attempt to emulate any kind of physics (historically, these are more "rules-lite" designs) does NOT threaten your fiction in this way. For instance, given a group who all understand that the game they are playing is a "realistic" one, you will NEVER encounter a realism-breaking moment when playing The Pool.

(This is also a nice feature of many Fortune-in-the-Middle designs.)

In my experience, games that attempt to create "realism" mechanically (as opposed to narratively) tend to destroy my sense of disbelief more often than those that do not.

*Making the Game Better: the Technique*

Realism as a Technique can definitely be used in support of all kinds of different agendas. Taking the most vanilla versions of G, N, and S, I would say:

Gamism: "Realism" acts a set of rules helping to limit the playing field, setting limitations on the participants and possible actions, and thus creating interesting tactical choices. For instance, Eero's application of encumbrance rules (even if they were just based on his own logic, not a game mechanic) creates interesting resource management challenges for the players.

Narativism: Building a causally "realistic" environment also works to constrain the choices of the protagonists, and, more importantly, gives a little more "teeth" to the consequences of those choices. All this information can be used to put more pressure on the story in addressing Premise. For example, doing a little bit of research on the medical problems associated with childbirth in a historical drama and then bringing that information into play might cause a the player of a womanizer think twice about his next "conquest".

I remember having serious growing pains with AD&D when we tried to play it in a more "Narrativist" fashion. Many thematically significant situations were totally defused by the mechanics of play. For instance, we'd have a hero separated from his lover by a squad of guards with crossbows. In the kind of story we were trying to create, the hero faced a tough choice: would he attempt to save his lover and risk death? This totally fell flat, however, when we realized that this particular hero had enough hit points to slowly walk over to his lover and rescue her, since he could take a few dozen crossbow shots quite safely. We tried to create such thematically-charged moments, as we saw them in movies or read them in books, and were always frustrated when we realized that the "tough choice" we were presenting wasn't really a tough choice at all.

This was my old group's main preoccupation with realism: we didn't realize it, but really we wanted "realism" so that we could make those choices meaningful. Without "realism" we couldn't address tough thematic questions, because the games we were playing did not or could not model the situations that would allow us to address those questions. To give the hero above a tough choice, the crossbow bolts had to hurt as much as they would in real life (or at least as much as they would in most of our favourite fiction). We needed realism to address Narrativist priorities.

Simulationism: The application of "realism" or "genre realism" (say, emulating a Superhero Comic Adventure) is helpful to a Sim agenda when the System in place (in the broader sense; not just the mechanics) helps support the coherency of the game fiction. In a "realistic" story (as in realist literature), we can all appeal to our sense of "what is real" to better create the kind of fiction we're aiming for, and enjoy that coherent sense all by itself. In a particular genre with strong genre tropes, being aware of those expectations can help us do the same: for instance, a game that re-creates fairy tales might be well served by rules that enforce a "Happily Ever After" ending.

In any case, however, the concerns of "realism" within the Big Model apply mostly to the Exploration layer, which is present in any kind of roleplaying. (That is, if I understand the Model correctly.) Attention paid to coherency, logic, and any relevant genre limitations help everyone achieve more attachment to the fiction, whether it's a stronger sense of challenge, a stronger sympathy for the protagonists, a stronger suspension of disbelief, or simply more of an ability to relate to the fiction in a personal sense.

Of course, there are also many ways to play and have fun where those concerns would be completely irrelevant, and a waste of time. I would suggest that any gamer stands to benefit greatly from figuring out, for him or herself, where concerns of "realism" are likely to produce more enjoyment and where they are completely unrelated to what makes the game fun.


So, some actual play.

I'm playing Unknown Armies with Mo, and there is this scene where she's in a car in the middle of the woods with a guy who is the father of a girl she's trying to help. She isn't sure if the guy really wants to help his daughter, or if he's been abusing her. He's upset, she's upset, and things quite suddenly go to violence, as they often do in games, and he lunges for her gun.

Mo's character has a gun in her lap, not pointed at the guy. Both of them had seat belts on. He's a former army ranger, she's... well... more bad ass than even that.

I'm seeing this thing coming on, and I know that the fight is going to be ugly. Because in that situation there is just a lot of ugly, especially if she doesn't want to just shoot him and/or isn't able to get the gun up before he starts choking, kicking, and joint breaking.

Then Mo says "Morgan goes to bash him across the side of the head, trying to knock him unconscious."

Now, the knock unconscious maneuver is a thing. I mean, you can do it in real life, right? Cold cocking someone and rendering them senseless is possible. But the way that she was approaching it, the kind of "I'll just pop him one and he'll go out like a light, but with no lasting damage, because this is the safe way that the hero takes out someone without having to have things get ugly or real" sapping with a gun... well, that's less real.

It also happens that in Unknown Armies that maneuver doesn't really work. She ends up bashing him in the face, peeling back part of his scalp, and not knocking him unconscious at all. He gets a hand on the gun, and things get really ugly really fast.

All of a sudden this scene with two characters who were just trying to do their best by this girl (he wasn't the abuser, he was just trying to protect his daughter) are choking and kicking and biting and screaming and nearly shooting each other. Morgan finally beats him unconscious, brutally and with lasting damage, and then has to drag his body into the trunk. Then has to go back and explain why there is blood all over the car to the daughter.

Needless to say, that fight changed the whole course of the game, and what it meant, and how the characters felt about each other, and how we all felt about the situation. Even though no one died in that fight, people ended up dying because of that fight, and it left real and lasting emotional trauma scars on the characters involved.

So, here's the thing. If the game had been a world in which you can just bop someone in the head with a gun and they fall over like a narcoleptic the whole tone and meaning of the game would have been different. There would have been an easy solution possible, an easy out where violence can be casually used with no lasting consequences. But it wasn't, and so everything that happened went differently. Harder, uglier choices had to be made, and no one got off clean.

So yes, realism is a technique, and has a noted effect and affect upon the fiction. Realism constrains choices, puts emphasis on different areas, and shifts the emotional resonance of a story. And if that's what you want or not is something worth consideration.
- Brand Robins



After my last post I remembered that we once talked about a Sorcerer game you were running, and the viability of the "take the gun off the opponent" strategy, and how it doesn't really work, or at least doesn't work the way it does in movies.

That's the exact kind of thing I'm talking about here. It's one simple example of realism, but its one that's pretty easy to see. If players know that they can do a "disarm" to knock an armed and ready opponent's gun away with a successful single roll and relatively little risk, it leads to a different approach than a game in which they know that trying to disarm someone with a gun is very likely to lead to them being shot and dying.

The thing about this is when you combine it with a Narrativist agenda, it doesn't just become about "fights being real." It starts to inform the whole process of what goes on in the game.
- Brand Robins

Simon C

Brand, those are some really excellent examples! I hadn't even thought about the connection to that thing about avoiding tough choices, but you're totally right.

So, I guess my next question is, in the absence of system, who gets to be the authority on realism? How do you avoid those "can a man outrun a wolf?" arguments?

For example, in that Sorcerer game you mentioned (which is a great example), what happens if I say "you can't just grab a gun off someone like that" and the player says "yes, you totally can, my dad's in the army and he says..."?



Hah! That's the difference between realism and realistic.

Anyway, as to the Sorcerer example -- the dice should do a good job on that one. Much as I've occasionally struggled with Sorcerer's dice mechanics, I'd totally trust them in that situation to make something interesting happen. Especially if you don't try to make stakes out of it, and just go in with intents and let things play out. Bonus dice would probably add into the issue as well, giving the GM some ability to say "Yea, I do/don't buy that as realistic" without having to simply resolve it by fiat.

The Unknown Armies example worked out much the same -- I didn't have to say what was realistic and what wasn't. The game was designed to have a certain level of grit, and it (mostly) delivers on that. Mo said what she wanted to do, we rolled, and bad shit happened. It was, given the intent and its interaction with the way the system works, pretty much inevitable.

Now, other games can be very interesting on this. Dogs in the Vineyard, due to its stakes setting, can have some interesting permutations around "well I don't think those stakes are realistic" that you can get into. Vincent has said some cool stuff about how these things tend to work themselves out over time if you just play it straight, but I've seen it cause problems in the short term. Figuring out stakes that are small enough and real enough really is one of those places where some skilled social play is probably needed.

In more freeformy games, this can get really interesting. Like, I was looking at Compass Gods this afternoon and it made this conversation pop into my mind. When you're moving to the divide between "humanly possible" and "possible only using colored coins" you can have some issues of realism and proportion. Like, if I'm a bad ass kung fu asshole is it humanly possible for me to beat up four semi-skilled opponents who all attack me at once? I really think it probably isn't, but I've friends who I know would argue it really is. So in that instance, what do we do?

Me personally, I'd probably say, "step it down or use the colored coin" but then, I've no problem being the heavy at the table. For others, I'm pretty sure it isn't that easy. Especially when you're not necessarily on the same page about what "realism" means in terms of whatever genre you're playing in.

Another AP example on this subject.

I was playing a TSOY 7th Sea game, and once again Mo was the active player in a scene. She's a fencer, and is being charged down by some flying hussars on open ground. We've said we're playing a "swashbuckling" game, and so she does this narration where she runs up the guy's lance and grapples him out of the saddle. I'm instantly like "you run up his lance? Really?"

Now, what I probably should have done at this point is said, "Sure, try it, but running up a lance is like a two dice penalty." Instead we kind of shorted out as Mo felt it was a reasonable thing to do in a world of swashbuckling, and I really didn't. The conversation quickly revealed that she was thinking "swashbuckling" in terms of, say, the new Pirates movies and I was thinking in terms of, say, Scaramouch. I was thinking of a genre in which the action is cool because its grounded in reality, and you can just barely believe that some real person could really do that. She was thinking in terms of a genre in which you laugh and shake your head while Johnny Depp has a sword battle on a giant rolling wheel.

If we'd gone to the system and she'd done it, then I guess we learned that in this games reality that is realistic. If she failed, then it was because a person in that world can't quite do it. Instead we came to a negotiated mediation out of game, then went back to the dice. It was a very mixed result, and I'm not sure which way really would have been better.

Anyway, this probably sounds like I'm off into "sim genre reality" rather than the "realism" we started this thread with. However, I think that the truth is that when you're looking at them as techniques there is a lot of cross over between issues with how they get dealt with in game. If you can really grab a gun out of someone's hand in the real world is a proposition whose argument leads to very similar rhetorical stances as that about whether a jedi can actually leap 100 feet straight up to get out of the garbage shoot before they get trapped with the muck monster. In both cases very often what is going on is less an argument about the actual feasibility of an issue (though that is involved) and has more to do with a sense of discontent, tilting, or power struggle over the state of the fiction.
- Brand Robins

Simon C

Hi Brand,

You've identified one of the potential problems with Compass Gods.  I have tended to interpret "humanly possible" as literally "a human body is capable of performing that action", allowing a lot of pretty far-fetched stuff, but it's not very well defined.  I guess it depends on the tone you're going for in the game, but it could probably use some advice on that point.

QuoteIn both cases very often what is going on is less an argument about the actual feasibility of an issue (though that is involved) and has more to do with a sense of discontent, tilting, or power struggle over the state of the fiction.

That's a really good call, and lines up with a lot of my experiences with this kind of thing.

Ron Edwards

Hi Simon,

The last few posts are really excellent stuff that I'm going to study, but I'd also like to work with your question:

QuoteWhat are some at-the-table practices that produce the effects of realism?

The best way I can see is to examine three things: (1) what goes into (say) a resolution mechanic when it's used, (2) what the resolution mechanic produces, and (3) how that product gets "cemented" into play in terms of effects. However, to do that I have to invoke the Lumpley Principle, specifically that only talking and hearing comprises the medium of role-playing.

Which is a fancy way of saying that nothing in play is automatically realistic as such; instead, it gets labeled and appreciated as realistic as a specific aesthetic and communicated part of play. Back in the 80s, when people I knew said "realistic!" they were talking about how big and messy holes in the body were when made by handgun-fired bullets. To play what we called realistically, back then, one accepted a whole range of possibilities about what might happen to your character in a fight (Cyberpunk, the original Friday Night Firefight combat rules, are a good example, and I mean really good, too, not only exemplary of my point). But here's my point: in real life, as a man in my early-mid 40s, there's a measurable probability that I'll keel over and die from a stroke the next time I do something strenuous. That sort of idea, or just about anything like it (maybe diseases in certain settings), typically didn't get factored into those very passionate and (if not accepted by everyone) game-destroying arguments or priorities. Therefore the urge for realism is not about how well rules simulate reality, but about what cherry-picked elements of reality we really want to front-load into the fiction and then enthuse about when they happen.

To directly answer your question, the at-the-table practice that satisfies the desire for realism are (a) to share expectations about what that is really supposed to look like in play (realism about what, expressed how), and (b) to describe events accordingly before, during, and after using resolution mechanics.

What I'm saying is that the resolution mechanics themselves won't do the job by themselves, either for yea or nay. Once my (a) and (b) are in place, then the question becomes not whether the resolution mechanics are or aren't producing realism, but whether the resolution mechanics are helping, or better put, aiding and abetting, the existing descriptions and stated consequences. They might not - in fact, they might be pretty much silent about that. The older D&D I used to play would be perfectly adequate, back around that 3rd-4th level phase when hit points were more-or-less easy to map to bodily injury through narration if that's what one wanted to do. Or they might - given that large messy bullet holes and the time it took to bleed out were part of what we wanted, then those Cyberpunk rules would produce a feel of the mechanics consequences "working with us," or even the illusory sense that by using the rules we were being realistic. In either case, though, it was really about description and interpretation of consequences.

I've often encountered talk about how certain mechanics literally obviate or "ruin" realistic play, but let's take a classic example: characters with 50 or 80 hit points in old-school AD&D (say, those late 70s books, as that's what I know best in a hazy-aging memory way). Even without consulting the relevant text, which happens to support my point, there's no reason on this earth why one needs to interpret those hit points as actual tissue, blood, and bone. A longsword might do 7 points and decapitate a first-level magic-user, sure; and it might nick the deltoid of a tenth-level fighter - and that's OK, because the desire for realistic play is a matter of narration, not of points. The points are about whether the character's still standing, and once that's acknowledged as their purpose, as such they are the in-fiction narration's bitch. (That's another re-statement of the Lumpley principle.)

So is system out the window? Who cares? Wheeeee! (Beatles music) "Narration is all you need," et cetera. The answer's no. As I see it, the mechanics are very important in terms of stated consequences, whether positive or negative. The questions are whether we like the current rules' mechanical consequences enough, on their own (e.g. the percentage chance for character death per unit time of play, just to pick a key variable), and whether they can be employed as an expression of our realistic-loving narrations and contributions in a way which we like as well.

So that leads to practice (c) at the table: choosing and most important agreeing about how to use the rules-set involved. Realistic-loving group A might do very well with that AD&D rules-set because they "know how to play right," as they'd say, really meaning that they narrate such that hit points do not contradict their aesthetic goals (and again, I should point out that this is consistent with the written rules, for what that's worth). Realistic-loving group B might do very well with the Cyberpunk rules set because they really, really like the way that characters bleed after being shot - I mean, they could have described it all on its own, but now there's a procedure to follow as a formal way to enjoy it, including a consequence (death) that would otherwise be simply stated on its own, and as such, perhaps vulnerable to conflicts of interest (it's easy to get a little less realistic-loving when it's your character hemorrhaging rather than his opponent).

I'm willing to accept, in theory, that certain rules-sets totally hose all talk and hence practice of realistic play ... but the only ones I can think of actually include that very idea as a virtue; e.g., in Hong Kong Action Theater, explosions do no damage. But realism's actually not gone! What I see in playing games like that (Extreme Vengeance is another; if you active Slo-Mo you take no damage) is that certain things get narrated in such a way as to satisfy certain applications of the realistic aesthetic, and which those things are is very strongly specified. When it comes to the gore associated with bullet holes in enemies, for instance, being realistic leaps to the fore again - it just doesn't, though, when it's my character who's hit. It's

In most circumstances I've seen, instead of arguments really being about what is and isn't realistic, they're about what "realistic" is supposed to look like, and when to apply it (or better, to whom). In other words, different desires regarding my practices (a) and (b) which are mistakenly referencing practice (c) as if it were primary. (c) is indeed a big deal, but it really illustrates that "system does matter" also requires knowing "matters for what."

As an aside, and since that last bit obliquely referenced Creative Agenda, putting "realistic" into play and consequences can easily be tuned to the needs of any of the three. We don't need to go into that if you don't want.

Anyway ... what do you think?

Best, Ron



I'm finding your distinctions useful.

In my AP's and such what I should have been saying / was trying to say isn't "Unknown Armies / Sorcerer is realistic" but instead "Unknown Armies and Sorcerer, played by my group, provokes a style of play in which we're all able to quickly come to a joint understanding of what realistic means in this game." Where as TSOY, for all its excellence, didn't really do that for us.

Now I have to think about exactly why that is. I think that there is some degree to which the "you can't force anyone to do anything (but die)" elements of, say, Sorcerer are a real help in that they put a focus on a kind of discrete, concrete action. I also find the way that Sorcerer (and to a much lesser degree UA) deal with the interactions of intents without pre-judging them also helps bring us together on a protagonizing but de-heroizing note.

I suppose its also possible, as I mentioned above, that TSOY could have helped us more than we let it but as we worked on it aside from the mechanics, we simply never gave it a chance. But my experiences with TSOY and HeroQuest have often lead to a similar reaction in my group -- there is something about the games that provokes certain behaviors in the group, but I wouldn't say that either of them has ever helped us get our "realistic" communications fully in congruence (or even productive disagreement) with each other.
- Brand Robins