My friend knows a lot of stuff about (something) and wants to see that reflected better in game, how can I do that?
Realism is a hot topic in the tabletop blogosphere right now. Posts have predictably run the gamut from ‘don’t think about it at all’ to ‘add whatever house rules you can to make it as realistic as possible’. I’m going to add the philosopher’s perspective, and say that you have no idea what reality is. Let’s take a few examples of real world reality before turning to gaming.
How many miles of shoreline does England have? If you answered with a number (like the CIA did: 12429 km or 7723 miles) then you’re wrong. This is one of the early examples used by Mandlebrot to show the importance of fractals (or at least got him on the path). The point is, the higher resolution your measuring tool, the longer the coastline. What’s worse, is that there is no real ‘right’ answer as long as your measuring tool is getting you the results you need, then you’re close enough.
Another more abstract concern is that seeing in no way means believing. We all know that our senses can be tricked. Pencils appear bent when viewed through a glass of water, wind through the trees may sound like the baying of some creature, even a scent on the wind may be deceive. If senses were totally reliable, there would be no such thing as an illusion. Weirder, illusions aren’t perceived the same way by different viewers, showing that sensory perception is a personal, subjective experience rather than a reliable tool for encountering ‘reality’. If these clear cases of unreliable sensory experience are indicative of the overall unreliability of senses, then there’s no reason we can ever be completely satisfied with any of our sensory experiences. That being so, what does it say of our certainty of the reality we experience?
So, let’s focus on gaming. There are things that we each seem to ‘know’. One member of my gaming group is a big, huge fan of physical fighting. As someone that participates, or participated, in formal fighting and MMA he is well aware of how people act during a fight, and what happens to a person the moment they get hit. This is the sort of thing that no RPG covers well, and nobody would play a game that did. As for me, I am pretty well versed in anthropology and mythology. It rankles me greatly when a society is set up in a game in such a way that isn’t at all sensible. Another gamer I know is simply baffled by the concept of Hit Points, and reinterpreting HP abstractly doesn’t seem to help. It hasn’t escaped my notice that leveling up doesn’t phase him at all.
Though it should be said, every RPG is, in some way, a model for reality. The question isn’t so much ‘how much reality we can capture in a given roll?’ as it is ‘what is the purpose of the game, and how do we capture that in a rules system?’ The d20 games are among the most sophisticated and popular RPGs on the market. This family of games captures very well the struggle of heroes against dark evils lurking in the cosmos, and those heroes growing efforts to vie against those evils. GURPS, on the other hand, is a system that lends itself very well to playing short games with a set of already powerful characters fighting some unusual opponent. In GURPS the players aren’t bent towards heroism, nor toward any particular genre. The system is pretty weak, however, when it comes to protracted games that invlove characters that grow into their situation. Other games are designed to capture their stories as well, World of Darkness captures their characters a particular way, HERO system in their own way. Each system trying to capture a reality in a particular way. In a Pathfinder game, the oddity of the kindgom next door having no agriculture may be that way because it’s unimportant to the game in which you are playing, in a Werewolf game that may be central to the plot line.
So, when people complain about realism in games, there’s probably two issues they may be hitting upon. The first is something like ‘This game doesn’t reflect something realistically.’ This could be ‘I hit that guy with a sword 12 times before he died.’ The second concern they may be relating is something like ‘This game doesn’t spend enough time accurately reflecting the one thing I know really well.’ This might be ‘I hit the guy so he should lose 1 to his AC because he’s flinching now.’ While the first concern may reveal something the GM can anticipate, or the system could change in another version or through errata, the second claim is something only the GM can contend with, but is usually best left aside.
Let’s look at a rules system that has been fiddled with since the early days: alignment. In the first days of D&D, alignment was one of three option: Chaos, Neutral, Lawful. In those days, Lawful was correlated with ‘Good’, and Chaos with ‘Evil’ (or, perhaps better, Actively Stabilizing and Destabilizing). This was perceived as deficient because it just didn’t reflect the span of motivations of different characters, so a good and evil axis was added. In the years to come, people hotly debated what each possibility meant, and whether characters could be dedicated to one axis more than the other, or two different characters with the same alignment might disagree on important issues. One of the best changes introduced by 4e D&D was the altered alignment system, specifically the ‘Unaligned’ category. Gone are the debates of whether Neutral was concerned with balance, or if they could just stay out of the conflicts entirely.
So, should a game be concerned with Realism? Of course, but not beyond the scope of the goal of the game. Our own grasp of the reality in which we live is tenuous enough, and our knowledge of that reality is paltry at best. We certainly wouldn’t want the game to determine each actual wound to placate doctors while also placating economists and geologists. What is important is that the game captures the essence of the story in the execution of the rules. As always, fun is important, rules less so.