Realism: Truths and Myths


What's the most realistic system among the following for deciding who wins a life and death fight between a classic knight and a loincloth barbarian, each using traditional weapons and assuming equal physical and mental skills: 

Write down your opinions somewhere before continuing and we'll see how your first thought stacks up. I'll wait here while you come up with an answer... Still waiting.... Hurry up... Done? Good. 

If you selected any of the above over the others, you screwed up. Or rather, you fell into a common misconception about realism. The answer is none. 

The reason is rather simple, from Merriam-Webster Online: Realism: 3 : fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization 3 : fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization. 

An accurate representation here should at the very least mean that we are able match the final outcome probabilities of the combat to real life. It would come out as something easy to state like- "the Knight wins 65% of the time". Sadly I know of no reasonable well-grounded scientific evidence that provides the probability of winning for either opponent in the above question.

Now each game has their answer, based upon various bits of information and assumptions. Sure there are the SCA sources for C&S, but that's wooden sticks with tons of safety rules for something mostly played for fun. Sure there are ARMA sources behind The Riddle of Steel, but that's still just study of mostly lost knowledge combined with sparring- again that's not life and death combat (plus I don't think they ever modeled the above encounter, let alone collected statistics on it). Age of Heroes is just made up its numbers. In the end, all the above games decide upon a winner- and that's about as close to reality as we can objectively get on this question.

There is however no question that many see different degrees of realism between the above games. If they are not seeing realism directly when answering my question, what are they seeing and reacting to instead? There are many possible answers to that question (which will result in selecting a different game as most realistic in many cases), but let's consider what are perhaps the two most common reasons. First, they are looking at the detail the rules contain. More importantly they are considering what that detail is focused on. Each of the above games focuses their varying degrees of detail on different areas. Just to grab a few combat examples from the above list-

Now depending upon what the player thinks is the most interesting thing to focus on- he could select any of the above as the most realistic. The term realistic has been misapplied, but he has selected that which matches what he thinks are the important elements of combat and ignored that which he wasn't interested in.

But there is another layer to this question. If we cannot answer which of the above games produce realistic outcomes of the combat- can we answer the question which of the above presents the most realistic path to that outcome?

The answer here is a qualified yes, but likely not in the way that many reached that conclusion. Most will approach the question with the mindset of determining which system covers all the factors important to combat correctly. I consider that a flawed approach, if the game has focused its mechanics on what it considers important details- it has most likely abstracted out other details in order to maintain that focus and make for a playable game. Thus counting the numbers of details included would be misleading as it discounted the very core ideas of the design. 

Instead I'd suggest that we approach the question from a different angle and look at those things in the system which breaks the mental image we have of reality. A quick (and very simplified) example, in WWII the Tiger tank had much more powerful gun than the US M4 Sherman did. Here are a just two possible of ways of showing that in a game:

  1. We can assign the Tiger tank a greater damage rating.

  2. We can let the Tiger tank roll multiple times on the damage chart to determine final damage inflicted.

Assuming both methods produce the same final result, the first option is much more realistic than the second for the simple reason that the second implies that the Tiger tank is firing at a higher rate of fire then the Sherman- something which isn't true. The final outcome may be realistic- but the method to get there is not. 

As an example from the above game system list, it is on this point that D&D takes major realism hits. It has weapons impacting according to the die rolls but due to the abstraction of its HP system- they aren't really hitting home. Even so, the mental image created is that of weapons bouncing off the chests of characters leaving nothing more than bruises. 

This leads us to make an important statement about realism- 

It is impossible to determine the realism of those things we don't know about, but to the extent that a game system conflicts with what we do know- we can stay that it is unrealistic. 

I should note at this point that nearly all games have breaks like the above in some aspect of their mechanics. The question of how important and damaging they are again goes back to focus- what does the designer and players consider the key elements of what is being modeled. 

It's important at this point to note that because influence or action doesn't appear at all in the rules-  it does not mean that the game design is broken at the point, nor does it mean that the element wasn't in fact addressed. We'll cover this concept in the next article about The Abstraction of Reality...

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