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#RPGTheoryJuly – 26th – Realism vs Playability

Is realism actually a thing in role playing games? I have played some of the crunchiest and rules heavy games available over the past 40 years and I have never seen anything approaching realism.

I have played games that have confused micro management for realism, or those that gave tried to model real world events, like getting hit by a war hammer, and these fail terribly. It is almost a sport to visit their forums and read the archers complain about how archery is modelled and the fencers and pugilists complain how swords are modelled. Then you get physicists trying to rationalise whether plate mail would act as a faraday cage or not.

There is a saying along the lines of ‘amateurs talk of tactics, professionals talk of logistics’.

In game design amateurs and marketeers talk of realism, real designers talk of consistency.

Consistency means that players can plan actions with some sort of world knowledge. If a human can long jump. 10 + 1d6 feet then a character could look at a chasm and say “I can make that.” If a human can long jump 2d8 feet you would have no idea if you can make the jump or not. The 2d8 is unrealistic and unplayable because it is inconsistent.

A jumping rule that says you could jump you Dex in feet plus 1d6 would also give consistency, you can look at a jump and estimate if you can make it or not. The rule is very simple and playable but is it realistic? Well in a typical medieval town there could be more that 100 people who could long jump Olympic distances, 24′ or 8m. Ellery Harding Clark was Olympic gold medalist in the first games of the modern era and had a personal best of just 6.6m.

One could of course take the characters limb length, take off distance and speed and how encumbered they are. But how how do you distinguish between 20lbs of dead weight and 20lbs of well distributed weight? If you solve the weight problem then there is a rabbit hole of ever greater granularity of the factors influencing a simple long jump.

Does it make the game more realistic, perhaps but probably not. Most groups I have known have abandoned rules that the found to be too cumbersome.

Then you find that the designer was using his detailed modeling of weapon and armour encumberance as a balancing factor to balance martial professions against stealth professions and you have just junked the game balance mechanism.

Detail is the lever that designers use to simulate realism but detail is the first thing that groups drop when it gets in the way of fun.

Going the other way, it could look at first glance that a complete lack of detail would be equally unplayable. If there is nothing to stop you karate chopping a dragon and killing it then how are you going to construct challenges that provide the backbone of roleplaying?

This is a red herring or false argument. The challenges and structural elements for role pkaying is a social contract. That is exactly how Fate works. Here is a dice roll but what it means is negotiated between GM and players.

In solo play what story cubes or random game icons mean are not determined from a rule or table but by what is best for the story.

The playability is not a written rule but part of the agreement between GM and players when they decide to play. Break that contract and you have GMs where their players drift away and players who don’t get invited to join games.

In solo play this social contract is not needed. You could play your favourite game using just broad strokes of the rules while playing on a train, using a dice roller app and a pdf rulebook. Get home and you have everything easily to hand and you can apply penalties for this that and the other rather than just eyeballing it and coming up with a number.

Is it the same game? Yes. Is it as realistic? Maybe not but not that far off. Is it more playable? Most definitely.

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