Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Folly of "Realistic" Rules

One of my favorite things about "simple" systems like OD&D is how deceptively strong they really are. Its a simple truth that the fewer rules a system has, and the more streamlined those rules are, the harder that system is to "break", and the easier it is to rationalize abstract expressions as an in-game narrative.

Many systems have tried to present themselves as "more realistic" than OD&D, but really all they're doing is adding more rules (none of which can ever be true representation of reality) and thereby more complexity. Each rule added will likely demand the addition of still further rules to support the first one, and such rules can typically be added to ad infinitum, the only limit being when the designer grows weary of coming up with these representations. Sound confusing? You bet. Maybe some examples would help.

If you've played Runequest, you are aware that one of the ways the designers tried to make this system more realistic was to include a detailed hit location system for attacks suffered by the character, and a distribution of the character's total hit points among those locations. Like any set of rules, the system becomes less unwieldy with experience, but never really becomes more realistic. There is always the potential to take these rules a step further. Maybe a blunt weapon should do more damage to the head than an arrow. Maybe an arrow through the arm should be more damaging than a slingstone, or leather armor protect better against slingstones than against javelins. You can continue to add rules to accommodate these different situations and conditionals, filling up countless manuals with every possible minutiae of hit location vs damage sustained vs armor worn vs wind conditions, etc.

In the end all you've really accomplished is to delay the narrative of the game, which is really the meat and potatoes of the RPG hobby.

Another example are the standard combat rules of the d20 SRD. Exhaustive, to say the least. Take a look at them. When you've regained consciousness, consider what is actually gained by adhering faithfully to these rules. Take the "Attack of Opportunity" for instance. In theory its a simple concept: "Two kinds of actions can provoke attacks of opportunity: moving out of a threatened square and performing an action within a threatened square."

In practice though, and as you dig deeper into the special maneuvers, feats, and actions of d20 combat, you begin to realize that everything provokes an attack of opportunity. Want to push an orc out of the doorway? Attack of Opportunity. Want to drink a potion of healing? Attack of Opportunity. Everything provokes an attack, except actually fighting with your opponent. Here is a rule, designed to make combat more realistic, that has done nothing but spawn 99 more rules, and completely defeated its own purpose to boot!

The combat round, as presented in earlier editions, is assumed to already take the infinite possibilities of "opportunity" into account. The combat round represents a period (several seconds on up to a minute, depending on edition) of hacking, slashing, dodging, parrying, ducking, weaving, poking, punching, and cursing, and boils it all down to one elegant resolution: a roll to hit versus an armor class. No matter how many conditionals and feats and subsystems you add to the attack of opportunity mechanic, it will never be comprehensive enough to accurately accomplish what its supposed to.

At some point, the designers of a game must agree on a cut-off point, a point at which they will develop no further additions to these randomized abstractions. That cut-off point, regardless of edition, is arbitrary and will suit either the in-game tastes of the designer, or simply fill a necessary page count decreed by one's editors;-)

Keep in mind, the above examples are just that: examples, not criticisms of the games or the folks who enjoy them. Obviously, rule abstraction can be taken too far the other way, I suppose up to the point where "Hero" attacks "Monster" and a coin is flipped to see who lives and who dies. And there are certainly players who enjoy more complex rules simply for fun of having more rules. But like an erector set, it cannot be denied that the more you add onto it, the more elaborate and convoluted the structure, the easier it is to bring it all crashing down, and the harder it is to make heads or tails of what it was supposed to represent in the first place.


  1. Why flip a coin in the Hero vs Monster battle? I'm the gamemaster. I'll just *tell* you who live and dies. ;)

    Agreed 100% on the beauty of simple playable rules trumping pseudo-realism.

  2. Also, regarding the coin flip: Just today Original Edition Fantasy quoted Einstein: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

    Abstract hit points and armor class as part of abstract combat system: simple.

    Flip coin to see if you clear the dungeon level or die: TOO simple.

  3. I believe the April 1982 "episode" of P&D is quite approriate to the subject in question. You can find it at

    enjoy :O)

  4. last number on that link is "8" For some reason I could not C&P the link here.

  5. Hey, wandering through at a late date:

    "If you've played Runequest, you are aware that one of the ways the designers tried to make this system more realistic was to include a detailed hit location system for attacks suffered by the character, and a distribution of the character's total hit points among those locations..."

    Don't forget that OD&D itself had the same thing (at least optionally), in OD&D Vol-2, Dave Arneson's Blackmoor supplement.



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