Monday, November 21, 2016

The Realism Police Are Coming!

We've all been in one of those games. Everything is going fine, we're having fun, but then someone objects to a particular mechanic. Not that the mechanic is unfair, or that it isn't functional, but that it isn't realistic. Why does the fighter with the greatsword get to attack at the same rate as the rogue with a dagger? Why can someone reload a heavy crossbow as a free action with the right feats when humans are lucky if they can fire three bolts from one of these weapons in a minute? For that matter, how can a gunslinger reload a black powder firearm in seconds when even the fastest soldiers could barely manage that feat in half a minute? How the hell can a rogue or a monk use evasion in a 10 foot by 10 foot room that's filled with a fireball?

Because that's what makes the game work.
I would like to reiterate what I said over on my author blog a few weeks ago on this subject in Internal Consistency is What Your Novel Needs (Not Realism). Fictional worlds do not need realism in order to function. What they need is internal consistency, and that is often why rules are written the way they are.

RPGs Aren't Written To Be Realistic

Anytime you start a sentence with, "well, in the real world," you should just stop there. Because it might be true that commoners never saw a single gold piece in the actual Middle Ages, or that it is perfectly possible to tumble while wearing armor that meets the description of "full plate," but that doesn't matter. Because RPGs are not interested in recreating reality in exacting detail. Rather, the rules of an RPG are there to create systems for solving conflict within the story you're trying to tell.

Whatever form that conflict takes.
That is the purpose of every rule in an RPG. It's the reason why there's a mechanic for deciding how high your Diplomacy check has to be to persuade an NPC to see things your way. It's also why there's a limit regarding how many steps you can move an NPC with a single check in a 24 hour period. There's also a reason behind the use of a static number like armor class that someone has to meet or exceed in order to confirm a hit. These systems, in short, exist so you can say definitively whether the action you took succeeded, or failed as a way to continue the narrative nature of the game.

Now, are there games that address some of these "not realistic enough" complaints? Yes, there are. Scion, for example, has an initiative system that measures different actions with different ticks, so it is possible for someone who uses smaller, faster weapons to get more attacks in on a given turn. There are also game systems where different firearms will take longer to reload, or be harder to aim, depending on the accessories used, the type of ammunition a character loads it with, and the amount of training the character possesses. There are even some game systems, like Metal Magic and Lore, where every attack is one character's attack versus the target's active defense, meaning that everything is a roll-off. Some games even get detailed enough that they assign a limb for the attack to hit, and take into account how much damage is absorbed by the armor, and how much damage the armor takes when it's struck.

Rather than complain that a system isn't "realistic" enough, instead look at the game as it exists, and ask what it was meant to do. How was it balanced? For example, in Pathfinder, the trade-off between bows and crossbows is that bows can be fired faster, but crossbows are a simple weapon usable by any class. So crossbows have an action economy penalty in the form of reload time that classes which get martial weapon proficiency (or take feats to use martial weapons) can avoid. Alternatively, it is possible to reload a crossbow as a free action (and thus negate the action economy penalty) by taking the right feats. That isn't because the designers are trying to recreate how these weapons work in exacting detail, but rather because they want there to be advantages and disadvantages for the choices players make.

That's the sort of logic you should be using the examine a game's mechanics. Because mechanics are not based on opinions of how things work in the real world. They're based on game balance and conflict resolution. Evasion doesn't say the rogue needs cover, or an open space to step into to negate an effect that requires a Reflex save. Instead, the ability uses something along the lines of action movie logic; our hero was fast enough to roll out of the way of the blast, and therefore he isn't hurt by it. It doesn't matter if there was nothing to hide behind, because having something to duck behind isn't listed as part of evasion's mechanics.

Learn The System, Before You Complain ABOUT The System

There's no such thing as a perfect RPG. Every game has weak spots, oversights, and things players simply will not agree with. And, as it says on the first page of pretty much every RPG on the market, you can take or leave as much of the mechanics you want, and run your game however you please. However, when you fiddle with the game's engine, chances are good that the little change you make is going to have ripples.

Don't believe me? Create a rule that says all crits automatically confirm in Pathfinder the same way they do in DND 5e. Then watch as every character loads up on critical hit feats, and starts cutting a wider swath than you ever expected to see.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully it helped someone out there who was looking for a way to express this particular opinion, or who was looking for a different take on this argument. If you'd like to help me keep creating content just like this, then why not drop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a little bread in my jar? Even $1 a month can make a big difference. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not start now?


  1. I've had some conversations with a friend about the design of various games like this.

    Him: "Why doesn't [mechanic] work like [realistic expectations]?"

    Me: "Because then there wouldn't be choices to make. Whoever controls the most [mechanic] would win, and every game would be about maximizing it."

    Or: "Because it'd be too weak to be an important part of the game, and [mechanic] exists to emphasize [theme]."

    Internal consistency is what I think of when people talk about "realism." What's going on in the story should feel like a natural consequence of how the world works. Naturally, "realism" is also secondary to the kind of story or game you want.

  2. Yeah pretty much. I've been trying to point this out for years. "Realism" isn't really fun, especially not in terms of medieval combat. If we wanted real, we wouldn't be playing a game in the first place.

    Now that's not to say that some realism isn't needed - there has to be enough for the willing suspension of disbelief to be maintained. Beyond that, however, the primary concern is that fun has to come before realism. If you make something which is slow, clunky, boring and unintuitive, but it's realistic, then you've basically failed as a game designer because you haven't designed a game at that point - you've designed a simulation.

  3. You know, things such as magical fireballs, arcane automata,dragons etc don't break immersion for me.

    Not being able to stab with my sword or fight with a standard spear & shield however does.

    The genre is fantasy, power fantasies is an inherent feature. When you can't do fairly basic things the fantasy is broken by irritating and arbritary rules.

    That said, this is why house rules exist.