This entry is part 4 in the series Rules Mastery


A lot of blogs and articles talk about “realism” (or verisimilitude) in RPGs and how to achieve it. Campaign Mastery is no different in this respect, a number of my articles having dealt with the subject. Over the last few weeks, as I write this, I’ve been spending time thinking about a fundamental question that a lot of these articles and opinions take for granted. Just what is “realism”, anyway?

A lot of people seem to assume that “Realism” means a slavish dedication to representing, in-game, a physical reality that is dictated by the best knowledge imparted by modern science and distributed through encyclopedias, textbooks, and the internet.

Opposing this interpretation are an equally-vocal and ideologically-entrenched faction who support an absolute fidelity to the rules as printed – sometimes, as mis-printed – in any official source.

I think they are both wrong.

An Alternative Definition

For my money, “realism” is fidelity to both the genre of the game and a subordinate fidelity to the specifics of the individual campaign, as I have explained in past articles.

That fidelity should extend to *all* facets of the in-game RPG experience and this represents an extension of the philosophy that I have previously outlined.

The truer the game mechanics are to the genre (and possibly the subgenre) in question, the “better” those rules can be adjudged to be. While some compromise may be necessary in terms of game balance or playability, this aspect of “reality” is equally critical to the effectiveness of the game system.

Similarly, the adventures that take place within the campaign should be true to the genre and subgenre, and so should the character types, and the house rules, and the encounter types, and the internal logic running through the plotlines, and, well – everything.

The Implications For Reverse-Engineering Rules

It follows that genre conventions can be used as a key to identifying the intent of the game designer when the game mechanics were designed, to an extent that is directly proportionate to the quality of those rules in terms of simulating the genre in question.

Each time that a rules system or subsystem’s mechanics become understood, a perceptive GM will ask themselves what aspect of the genre those rules are attempting to simulate, because the answer should explain not only why those particular rules are the way they are, it can shed light on the question of why other rules work the way they do, and that in turn can make those rules more comprehensible.

Similarly, if there is a rules system or subsystem that makes no sense after reading and re-reading it, identifying the genre conventions that the subsystem represents can provide a catalyst to comprehension.

The Limitations

This approach doesn’t always work. Game systems are designed by people, and nothing created by people is ever perfect. No game system is ever uniformly excellent at simulating the “realism” of a genre, even before those compromises mentioned earlier are taken into account. So this tachnique is also going to be imperfect, by definition.

However, this imperfection provides a system for measuring the utility of house rules, and that can be the most valuable outcome of this particular analytical tool.

A standard for the assessment of House Rules

If the quality of a rules subsystem is measured apon a triumverate of metrics, as described earlier, then any change in those rules must improve one of the three qualities, and by a greater margin than the cost in the other attributes if it is to be adjudged a universal improvement.

Understandably, this is quite rare. If a rules subsystem is so obviously flawed that it can be so easily improved, that flaw is usually discovered during playtesting and the game mechanic replaced with something more functional.

More commonly, then, a house rule will shift a game mechanic subsystem on one axis at the expense of some sacrifice in one or both of the other attributes. A house rule may make the game system more playable, or it may eliminate an unfair advantage conferred by a particular loophole, or it may more accurately simulate the genre of the campaign. It may even do two of these, at the expense of a massive penalty in the remaining quality.

This is where the artistry of rules design can be found, because clearly there can be no one right answer to the challenge posed by the design of a given game subsystem. Every subsystem is a compromise, and a slightly different compromise may be perfectly acceptable, even preferable, to some GMs.

One GM may be willing to sacrifice a little more playability in exchange for a lot more “realism” or much better game balance, because he has a greater capacity for remembering and interpreting a slew of complicated game mechanics. Another may make the same choice because he has settled for a more abstract subsystem elsewhere in the game mechanics to free up capacity for this more “realistic” variant on the subsystem.

Others may be overwhelmed by the existing game mechanics and need a more abstract, playable substitute for a given subsystem. Or may want to simplify this element of the game system to permit them to place greater emphasis

But here’s the thing that a lot of House Rule designers overlook: not all the rules are in play all the time. Rules on character improvement don’t make any difference to attack rolls, rules on language handling don’t make much difference when adjudicating ranged weapons fire, and so on. It’s not the total complexity that matters, it’s the cumulative moment-to-moment loading on the GM that determines whether they are overwhelmed by a change.

In conclusion

Not everything has to make sense in a game, so long as it makes sense in the context of the genre conventions. And that’s the difference between “Realism” as most GMs define it, and how I apply it to RPG design.

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