Skip to content

Game vs. Simulation

July 16, 2012


My gaming group was originally part of a larger group that primarily played a home-brewed system that a mutual friend had thought to get published. It really was a good system and everyone enjoyed playing it. When our smaller group splintered away due to time, space, and other factors, we continued to play the home-brewed system. It was initially created for fantasy roleplaying, but we all felt it could easily be converted for sci-fi, modern, or any other setting or genre.

Over the years I’ve tried my hand at converting it to sci-fi, another member of our group tried to convert for westerns, and now another is trying a different, grittier, take on sci-fi (ala Aliens). And the biggest sticking point we all seem to have is how to handle firearms.

Because we are all aware of just how deadly such weapons are, we are equally aware of how high they raise the stakes of the game. Plus, we all want to have a realistic game that is still playable. And that’s the rub–striking that balance.

For myself, I tend to be very rules-light and err on the side of playability. So I essentially kept the damage ranges on par with those of melee weapons and upped the chances of a “critical” hit with firearms. For shotguns, I just had multiple small dice hit multiple body parts. Easy peasy.  Probably not very realistic, but fewer brain-farts for the GM.

My other friend continues to struggle with his western and modern weapons because he wants a more realistic system. He was once in the military and has an interest in weapons and knows a great deal about them. He wants his system to account for the loss of trajectory, the proper spread of a shotgun blast, etc. But as a result, unless there is magical healing of some sort, it’s a one-shot-one-kill world. Our trial run was cut short due to one of the lead PCs suffering permanent brain damage after surviving a shotgun blast.

My other friend, I think, is trying to strike a balance between my brain-dead approach and our other friend’s more simulation-oriented approach. I’m very interested in how it turns out.

But all of this leads up to a question that I think every game master, and, really, every gaming group, needs to answer: How much of a real-life simulation do you need your game to be? When does it cease to be a game and become a scientific model?

The easy answer is “when it ceases to be fun”, but I suspect there’s more to it than that. Genre, for one thing.  A game that is “hard sci-fi” calls for some actual scientific knowledge to come into play, while “science fantasy” could probably get by with some fuzzy logic. Even within fantasy there is a world of difference between the high fantasy of D&D and the relative grit of Warhammer or even playing in the Hyborian Age.

Plus, I think a large part of it is personal style. I know that what I deem as “more playable” others may deem as “unrealistic” or even “simplistic”. And that what others term “realistic” and “well-balanced” I term “archaic” and “complicated”. And that’s cool. Neither is the right way to do it. Different strokes for different folks. But as a GM you’ve got to play to your audience at least a little bit. And a game where people get up after a gunshot wound and climb Mt. Everest can be every bit as un-fun as a game where you can die of infection just by leaving the house.

So, like most things, I guess the level of realism needed in your gaming experience falls in a spectrum. And as GM, I think it’s important to take into account a number of variables when considering the level you and your group are going to play at.

But hey, what do I know? I don’t claim to have an answer here–just posing a question: Where do you fall? How much a of a simulation do you need a game to provide?  Let me know in the comments!

From → Ramblings

  1. I don’t think realism requires a lot of crunch, personally. The folks who wrote Diaspora (a hard SF implementation for Fate) focused more on the feel of hard SF rather than the math. They worked out what the math was, then abstracted it into rules systems that conveyed the effects of the limitations of real science without making calculus a part of the game.

    Really, what it comes down to is whether you’re trying to simulate the effects or the process that creates the effects. If what you’re trying to get across is that guns are deadly, and introducing guns to a situation really ups the stakes, then you can do that by making them massively damaging, but otherwise functioning like any other weapon (the route taken in many games, such as Over the Edge and The Dresden Files).

    Sure, you could make up rules for different caliber ammunition, and the effect of wind and loss of velocity over distance, and all that. The end effect is the same — guns are horrifyingly dangerous — but such an approach caters more to the gear-heads and the gun enthusiasts. Nothing wrong with either approach, but they are different kinds of fun for different kinds of gamer.

    • Thank you for your comments!

      That’s an interesting–and extremely useful–way to look at it (process vs. effects). I was also just reading a post by Monte Cook ( where he discussed the same dichotomy–“simple” vs. “complicated” and what it can mean for your game and said much the same thing–basically coming down on the side of context and knowing what it was you’re trying to accomplish with the rule-set.

      Still I think the amount of crunch comes down to the degree of realism being discussed. Like you say, if the level of realism is simply “guns are horrifyingly dangerous”, your crunch level doesn’t necessarily have to be very high. But if the threshold is “guns are horrifying dangerous and a large caliber hand gun is 35.7% more dangerous than a smaller but 48% less so than a low caliber rifle, etc.” then your crunch factor is going to go up exponentially. And I agree–once it passes that threshold it only caters to folks who are as in to the weapons as they are the game itself, if not more. Suffice it to say–I’m happy with the former and not so much into the latter 🙂

  2. There’s another wrinkle.

    I have a fantasy system I’m toying with in my head, and I’m going to be blogging about it as it becomes more concrete. One thing I’m noticing in the process is that I’m fine with an abstract combat system, but I keep tending to want to make the magic system crunchy.

    Part of this is to enforce the feel I think magic ought to have. I can’t assume that a player or GM who has never met me will understand magic as I do, or as I intended for the game, so I have to make rules (or at least guidelines) for how it works.

    On the other hand, I think that the generic swash-buckling combat style from any number of action and/or fantasy films speaks for itself.

    It’s all about how more attention to a particular aspect of the game translates to greater detail in the rules.

  3. Lol…yes, I feel your pain with magic system creation. I tried to do something similar in my fantasy campaign and am still not happy with it. I incorporated fatigue, material components, magical foci, the various skills involved, etc. Very crunchy. But at the same time, very loose in that it wasn’t a “spell” based system as much as a “magical skill” system. If you could justify it within the laws of magic, and had the requisite power and skills, you could try it. At least with combat you can rely on the laws of physics to back you up!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: