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Is This the Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?

July 16, 2017

untitled (12)I was recently on an online forum discussing some differences between Pathfinder and D&D 5e. One of the posters said something that struck me as rather odd–that Pathfinder is a complex system and he likes complex systems because “real life is complex.” This got me to thinking about the relationship between realism and fantasy in roleplaying games and settings.

The primary question that occurs to me is that, in a game, (let’s say a high-fantasy game such as Pathfinder or D&D), that has elves, dwarves, unicorns, dragons, magic, and fully-stocked dungeons full of treasure, why are we worried about the supposed “realism” of the system we use to play there? How do you justify that “this is how it works in the real world” when you are decidedly NOT playing in the “the real world”? Does that argument hold water?

Obviously, with it being a game, you have to have SOME laws to dictate how things go. Some rules on which to hang the storytelling process. But why are “realistic” rules de rigueur? Why not have rules that based less on simulation and have rules based on other factors–say narrative flow?

This is an old debate, I know. Should a game simulate the real world or emulate it? A lot of the emphasis of simulation comes from the roots of RPGs. Having gotten their start in the realm of miniature battle simulation, the traditions of those systems have evolved and carried forward. So more traditional games err toward the simulation model–rules try to simulate what would happen in “real world” situation with “real world” physics and “real world” consequences.

This makes for some complex, crunchy games–because, as the original poster mentioned above said, real life is complex.

On the other hand, many newer games are coming across with different models, emphasizing narrative and storytelling over the physics. They tend to be “rules-lite” systems, though this can be deceptive–Fate Core may not be as thick a book as Pathfinder, but I think its system is as robust and complex, just with different emphasis. The rules seek not to answer the question of “what happens to the character when hit with the sword?” but more of “why was the character hit with the sword and how does it affect the story?”

One system is not inherently “better” than the other–it’s a matter of emphasis and of taste, of course. But one thing that absolutely has to be there regardless of style a balance between the simulation and a realization that you are in a game. Playability has to be a factor.

I once played in a friend’s home-brew western campaign in which he worked very hard on coming up with “realistic” firearms rules. Our characters got into one firefight and the campaign came up short–one of main characters was permanently brain damaged by a bullet to the brainpan (“squish!”). The campaign was stymied–it was decidedly an un-fun proposition to get into a firefight. Our friend was permanently disabled. And chances were really good the same or worse would happen to our characters if we moved forward in the manner in which we wished to move story-wise. There’s no denying that the rules were realistic–if someone is hit with a bullet, something bad is going to happen. Period. But, at the same time, it is a game, and the story must also flow. The players have to have a means and a motivation to carry on.

Granted, looking back on that campaign, it could have opened the doors for some interesting roleplaying–after all, we shouldn’t protect our characters from danger, but embrace it. But the point is that the realism of the rules affected the game in a manner in which the game master or the players were not prepared.

I think, in the end, whether your jam is simulation or narrative flow, players and game masters all crave the same thing: verisimilitude. We all want a harmony between the internal logic of the game and the story. Whether that internal logic is based on real world physics (which is not necessarily a bad thing to on which to hang a logical system) or on tried-and-true methods of storytelling (which have worked well for millennia), we have to be able to make sense of what is going on.

While we may not all want simulation, we all want immersion. That is what roleplaying games are about–immersion into our roles and into different worlds. Simulation and narrative simply two paths that can be taken to get to that same sweet destination.

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From → Ramblings

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