Realism vs. Verisimilitude in RPGs, or You’re an Elf That Uses Magic

I’m going to make a statement here, one that I believe to be true based on a quarter century and more of gaming.

No one wants to play a realistic game.

I’m going to make another statement now, one that I know to be true based on a quarter century and more of gaming.

People will still complain about a game not being realistic.

Both statements are true. This can get confusing, but it’s really all about that word, “realistic.” I have a friend who studied philosophy but gave it up because he felt that all modern philosophy came down to arguing over the meaning of words. I can see that. This very important point comes down to the meaning of “real.”

For most of us who aren’t billionaire super-spies, gaming is escapism*, something we do to inject some vicarious excitement into our mostly mundane and routine lives. It’s power fantasy and storytelling and socializing and getting out of your own head. That means that we don’t want to play something that mimics our everyday life** – we get enough of our everyday lives in everyday life.

That’s one value of real. And we don’t want it.

Even if we’re playing a simulation of some sort – WWII miniatures, for example – we still don’t want it to be real. We don’t want to spend hours trying to push our tanks forward three inches on the table, or have to roll for logistical and communications foul-ups***. We want to deal with the fun parts of the subject, not with the tedious ones.

Let’s especially look at fantasy and sf games. Even the hardest of the hard sf games**** interjects a few elements of impossibility: FTL technology, aliens, whatever. And when you wind up playing, as the title of this post suggests, an elf that uses magic, you pretty much forfeit any right to decry a lack of realism. I mean, if you swallow the assumption of a near-immortal race changing reality around them with a thought, why would you balk at the idea that the economic scheme for buying, selling, and creating magic items doesn’t make any sense*****?

Now we’re getting somewhere. “Doesn’t make any sense.” That’s the key.

See, when we talk about whether a game is realistic or not, we’re not really talking about that. We’re talking about whether the game seems realistic or not. We’re talking about internal consistency, logical coherence, and believability. We’re talking about saying, “Given the basic assumptions about the world and setting the game presupposes, this makes sense.”

The word we’re really talking about is, “verisimilitude.” The quality of something seeming real or true.

This term comes up a lot in drama and fiction. One of my acting teachers, lo, these many years ago, used to say (I wrote it down and kept it, because I liked it):

If you ever start to feel that you are the person you are portraying on stage, please let me know immediately. Then have a little lie-down while I call a psychiatrist. We don’t become our roles; we are actors. We act as if we had become our roles. If you can’t make that distinction, the stage is not the place for you.

When we game, we don’t want the game world to be like the real world. We want the game world to behave as if ****** it were a real world. We want it to follow a coherent, internal structure that meets our ideas of cause and effect, allowing us to understand the relationships within that world.

We want it to make sense.

Which, when you think about it, is pretty weird, because we don’t necessarily have the same expectations of reality. Aristotle said:

With respect to the requirements of art, a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible.

What does that mean? Well, the real world is full of strangeness. Coincidence and synchronicity abound. Things happen every day that, if we read them in a book, we would point out as being far too coincidental. And in a game, they become very suspicious. Here’s an example:

  • If I go on vacation to Hawaii and run into my next-door neighbour there, we both say, “Wow. That’s weird.” Then we get on with our lives.
  • If a character in a book goes on vacation to Hawaii and runs into his next-door neighbour, we say, “Yeah, right. That’s completely unbelievable.” Despite the fact that such things can, and do, happen in real life.
  • In a game, if a character goes to a far away land, and runs into his next-door neighbour, the character says, “I wonder what he’s up to. Did he follow me here? Is he working for my enemies?” And then he attempts to knock his neighbour out and lock him in a trunk.

My point is that, in a constructed reality like fiction or gaming, we avoid certain aspects of reality, such as coincidence, as violating our sense of the real, despite the fact that such things are very much a part of reality. Reality, as Stephen King says, is Ralph*******.

Now, how this applies to gaming.

When you build an adventure, you need to keep the What, the How, and the Why in mind.

  • What. What happens? What is the event, the item, the character, the location? What do the characters have to do? What are the villains doing? This the core of most adventures, and serves as the starting point in development in a lot of cases.
  • How. What is the mechanism by which the What happens? If the villains are scrying on the characters, what magic are they using? If they’re going to blot out the sun, what device does that, and how does it work? If the characters run into their childhood friends, how does it come about? This is the first layer of explanation and verisimilitude, providing support and rationale for seeming coincidences. Players assume that this is here, even if it’s not, so best to be prepared.
  • Why. What’s the reason for the What? Why are the villains trying to blot out the sun? Why did the childhood friends come to the far away vacation land? This is the second layer of explanation and verismilitude. Again, players will assume it exists, so it’s a good idea for it to exist.

In a game, players don’t believe in coincidence. Everything is motivated by something, and that something revolves around the characters. This is a reasonable assumption; they are the stars of the story, and everything usually does revolve around them. Put some thought and preparation into it, and it helps the game feel richer and more real.

Now, there’s another type of realism bugaboo that rears its head from time to time. This is the real-world expert that tries to apply his real-world knowledge to the game world in order to squeeze some in-game benefit out of what he’s doing. This is the guy who argues that the heat of a fireball should cause the air to expand and knock out the walls of the building, or that, because he can fall 416 feet in a round, he should have a fly move of 83 squares. Or at least 40, because he’s gliding laterally. Or the economist who questions the stability of a kingdom’s currency because a hard metal standard can’t meet the needs of exchange and credit.

You know what to say to them, right?

“You’re an elf that uses magic. You don’t get to talk about realism.”




*I expect that billionaire super-spy gamers use gaming as a means of grounding themselves, and chilling out.

**”So, you’ve completed the website update. Roll your Dreamweaver skill check to see if you closed all the tags.”

***Now that I’ve written that statement, I’m sure there’s someone out there going, “But we do! That’s what our game is all about!” So, for you folks, I resort to this rebuttal: “That may be, but you sure don’t have real people really dying.” Those who disagree with this somewhat snarky and hyperbolic argument are free to discuss it with their local constabulary.

****I’m thinking probably Traveler 2300. At least, of the ones I’m familiar with.

*****And, really, who’s to say it doesn’t? When’s the last time you brewed a potion of invisibility? How much did you get for selling it?

******Stanislavsky talks about this idea at length in An Actor Prepares. He calls it, “the magic if.”

*******For an explanation of this weird little phrase, you’re going to have to read Lisey’s Story.

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3 Responses to Realism vs. Verisimilitude in RPGs, or You’re an Elf That Uses Magic

  1. damunzy says:

    > *****And, really, who’s to say it doesn’t? When’s the last time you brewed a potion of invisibility? How much did you get for selling it?

    The trade system/used items/magic items in D&D 4 immediately jumped into my mind.

  2. Pingback: Drawing the Line – Willing Suspension of Disbelief in Gaming | What's He On About Now?

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