Realism in tabletop role-playing games

What exactly is “realism” in RPGs, and is there any need for it? After all, no game mechanics can achieve a hundred percent of realism, and attempting to achieve it result in gigantic, complicated, unusable mechanics, such as Phoenix Command. At least, this is the general point of view of an average gamer – but turns out not to be true when analysed closely.

Realism in role-playing games is not the same as realism in art. In literature realism meant the lack of supernatural or fantastic elements, showing the life of ordinary people in a plausible manner. Such an assumption in RPGs would significantly restrict the available settings. However, the possibility of playing a fantasy thief, a science-fictional cyborg mercenary, or a former spy fighting secret cults of unholy gods does not change the fact that each of these examples may be played both in a realistic and in a cinematic manner.

One might play a thief in a fantasy world, that is realistically based on history with a small addition of magic or other supernatural elements (a world similar to the ones of the Joe Abercombie’s First Law trilogy or in GRR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice), or one might play an eighteenth-level thief capable of single-handedly defeating an average-sized group of mercenaries (in any D&D editon). One might be an FBI agent surveilling unspeakable cults in the convention of The Wire TV series (in Delta Green), or one might play cinematic Jason Bourne fighting the minions of a vampire conspiracy (in Night’s Black Agents). It is important not to mix the conventions – trying to play a James Bond type character in a realistic convention would end badly for the player characters, whereas attempting a realistic approach to an adventure created with car chases and shootouts with hordes of nameless cultists in mind will end with a frustrated Game Master and players.

But is it possible to create a realistic ruleset? The answer is yes, although it is not easy, due to the accumulated conventions of role-playing games. Realistic RPG mechanics are not the same as complicated mechanics, realistic rules are ones which do not generate unrealistic results. A good analogy for realism of game mechanics is the realism of drawings. One could illustrate the “warrior woman” entry with a realistically shaded drawing of an anatomically correct Viking shieldmaiden wearing mail, with a shield and sword, one might provide a photo of an Israeli infantry soldier, or with an exaggerated comic of a long-legged woman wearing a chainmail bikini and wielding a shovel-sized sword. The mechanics of D&D would be equivalent to a violet-skinned, chained-spike wielding busty gal drawn in an 8-bit style, with tile-sized pixels making it hard to recognize her as human (but fashionable due to retro-nostalgia).

No mechanics (or drawing) will be a completely faithful representation of reality. Game mechanics are an abstract representation of reality and, like every abstraction, will lose some details, just like drawing loses such information as smell, sound or mass, and reduces an object from three dimensions to two. There is a multitude of drawing and painting styles, just like there are many kinds of game mechanics.

Four-color superheroes requires Superman to be square-jawed and barrel-chested, not drawn in a realistic manner, and similarly, a superhero RPG should not have rules which reflect the reality of our world, but enable the reproduction of a world of comics, where punches which crush bricks and pierce steel just throw back the people they hit, even when the person being hit is not a “brick”, like the X-Men Colossus or Fantastic Four Grimm, but a physically normal human, such as Cyclops or Invisible Woman, when a strike with an armoured fist will not crush his or her ribs and punch out through the back with fragments of the spine, killing him or her instantly.

Whereas a comic book in the convention of a modern techno-thriller requires realistic drawings of men, guns and vehicles. Mechanics of the games in a realistic convention, inspired by Tom Clancy’s books requires correct modelling of firearms – D20 by Hasbro will certainly fail here.

Heroic fantasy is yet another matter – in such a comic book the knight wears a shining armour and has white teeth, whereas the dirt and stench of daily existence in Middle Ages may solely be used only as a bit of local colour. And a chainmail-bikini wearing warrior chick is of course required. Heroic fantasy mechanics should enable players to play epic characters, such as Beowulf, who in full armour and with a sword in his hand swam in the sea for seven years and fought with monsters. There is no place for realism here.

And so on. Various types of mechanics may be deemed realistic or unrealistic, depending on the setting and convention. A rules which reflect the world of Star Wars or Star Trek are not suitable to play in a realistic convention, whereas a set of realistic mechanics will fail for Star Wars or Conan.

We should thus distinguish two concepts: realistic rules and faithful rules. Realistic game mechanics enable playing in a realistic convention, whereas faithful mechanics model the conventions of the setting well.

Do role-playing games need realistic mechanics? Well, some people like to play in a realistic convention, and some don’t. The answer is thus: of course, they are needed, but not by everyone.

How to recognize realistic game mechanics? And can they be created? Of course, but one must forget many standard elements of RPGs, which have “always been there” only because they were introduced by the first RPG ever, Dungeons & Dragons – hit points, classes and levels must go. There have been realistic RPGs for a long time, even though they are few in number: the classic examples include HarnMaster for fantasy role-playing, Blue Planet for science-fiction, CORPS for systems which attempt to be universal ones, or Conspiracy X for modern-times gaming.

One thought on “Realism in tabletop role-playing games

  1. I hate the term ‘cinematic’. First of all, gonzo/unbelievable/fantastic/unlikely stuff long predates movies. Secondly, I pretty much hate most movies and the standard cinematic tropes, even though I like some of the gonzo/fantastic stuff. I generally despise the influence of cinema on games (that is, actually cinematic) because slow-motion and bullshit karate make me want to punch cinematographers and directors in the throat until they die.

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