On why Realism and "Making Sense" are Terrible

I don't think I've talked about this before.

It's one of the most important things.

Making things more realistic ruins games. Changing things to have them "make sense" destroys fun.

I've written and designed computer games before and the most important lesson I learned from those experiences was to design fun mechanics and make the game about that fun. Jeff Vogel talks about it here.

Every time someone suggested a way to make the game 'more realistic', it never failed detract from the game. Add armor damage and wear and tear on weapons causes tedium. Make the monsters fight each other causes endless messages and rooms full of dead creatures. How about at a table? Making people remember to eat, go to the bathroom and feed horses? You've insured that the players recite a list of items at various intervals. Sounds super fun, right?

Why is it when people sit down to play or run role playing games they forget that they are playing a game? Is Jenga less fun because you don't use a crane? Is Monopoly less fun because you can't buy stocks or put your money in a bank? Is Risk less fun because you don't use supply lines?

Games have rules and mechanics. These are supposed to generate fun on their own merits. Over and over again I see people change games for the sake of 'realism' or to 'make sense', resulting in something that isn't fun just for its own sake. 

Take a game like Old School Hack. Not only is a beautiful piece of work, it's also super fun to play. It is not a traditional play the same character forever type of RPG, and the turn structure is certainly different then normal. When a friend of mine ran it, she wanted to change it because it wasn't what she was used to, because the new system didn't make sense to her. Trying it out we found out it was fun on its own merits.

Ask yourself, devoid of setting and flavor, is what I'm doing an enjoyable activity? This is not a subjective question. In a game, an enjoyable activity comes from making choices with significant consequences. I've been talking at length lately why combat is an enjoyable activity and rolling for skills is not. If you blocked out the pictures, flavor text, and names on the cards in Dominion, the game would still be mind-blowingly good.

Realism in game design is an easy trap to fall into, but it invariably results in poor, boring games. Ask yourself why you are making any change, and if the answer isn't "this is objectively more fun because it provides either more choices or choices with more significant consequences resulting in more interesting play for the players," then don't make the change.

How will you ever know if you like something new if you just change it into what came before?


  1. Man, have you got the best blog in the gaming blogosphere or what? I've been occasionally mentioned this idea on my blog, but you really nailed it here.

    Really enjoying the skills series as well.

  2. It probably comes from conflating "realism", i.e. accurate simulation of real life, with "verisimilitude", i.e. the realistic consistency necessary for the players to make meaningful decisions.

  3. @John, Yes - the game has to make sense in relation to itself. 'make sense' being that realistic consistency that you speak of.

    Wonderfully said.

  4. The trick is to write rules that capture the *essence* of a process like combat, damage, encumbrance, exploration - without delving too much into the *details* of that process.

    That way it feels like reality but isn't as boring.

    The rules I end up keeping tend to work that way.

  5. @ Roger,


    I also wanted to make this clear - abstraction is fine as long as the end result is fine. People often have differing levels of acceptance for abstractions - differing levels of suspension of disbelief. This will keep them from embracing whatever abstraction it is and even trying it to find out if it is actually fun or not.

    They shouldn't do that.

  6. Nice, righteous, pre-holiday rant. It feels like we ought to be able to boil this down to a pithy statement ("realism is the enemy of fun"), or some kind of equation that demonstrates that as detail, rules, and realism increases, fun decreases.

  7. D + Ru + Re
    ----------- = 1

    ( I *think* that's the right format...)

  8. I dunno, I don't think that realism is necessarily the enemy of fun. I think that you're conflating cause and effect- that is, rules bloat and the desire to make things work as they do in the real world.

    There's certainly a better way for me to phrase my thought, so forgive me for now.

  9. Please do come back and rephrase your thought, I am interested in hearing your idea.

    I am not talking about RPG's, and I am not talking about talking about rules bloat. I am talking about games, and design from realism.

    Years of experience designing games and playing them has led me to conclude that design from realism is done not to improve the fun of a game (i.e. the choices or their consequences) but instead to satisfy some internal compulsion to symmetry.

    One of these is important, the other is not.

  10. If I'm understanding N. Wright correctly, I would rephrase it thusly:

    When concerns about realism reinforce the problem-solving and immersive aspects of the game, they are good. When they distract from the problem-solving and immersive aspects of the game, they are bad.

    I can totally get on board with that, as my problem with many bits of rules bloat that attempt to increase realism is that they are so cumbersome as to pull me out of the game world and into the mode of countless bonuses, penalties, and cross-referenced tables. Rules like this, whatever their end result regarding modelling, are not realistic because they make the experience of something that would be fluid and simple in the real world into some monstrous Goldberg-type contraption in the game world (if that makes sense).

    Perhaps this could be called the phenomenological criteria for rules design? :-P


    Where I think I diverge from your point of view slightly is here:

    Ask yourself, devoid of setting and flavor, is what I'm doing an enjoyable activity?

    For me, the answer to that question would always be no. The flavor is the point. Oddly enough, I'm not really a gamer. I find abstract problem solving (the essence of gaming) boring. I don't really play any games other than D&D. However, without a rules system to provide risk, challenge, and uncertainty, the experience of D&D is vapid. The rules enable an emergent experience that is not available in any other medium, computer aided or otherwise. This is another way of saying that I value choices with significant consequences. It's interesting that this set of priorities leads me to almost identical conclusions as yours (it seems) regarding methods of play and how to handle resolution mechanisms.

    Realism and making sense, above and beyond verisimilitude, are the enemy of immersion.

  11. None of this seems true at all.

    Reality can provide wonderful limits for players to break, it pushes designers to write rules that do not contradict the fluff, it avoids unexpected weirdness from emergent behaviour (like bunny-hopping in shooters), it should allow normal things to happen as players expect them to.

    It can make for huge increases in player choice and input, like the old explosive compression fireballs that set things on fire and made smoke of them. That stuff is /massively/ more engaging than 5d6 damage.

    At the very least it should stop players hitting those "WTF just happened" moments quite so often.

    Nice blog, BTW, good reads.

  12. More thread necromancy: the term in computer game design is "Blue Cube". If you replace all the art in the game with bland blue cubes, is it still fun?


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