Realism and Formalism

An application of movie making to RPGs

In the early days of film, there was an argument about the proper way to make a movie. There were film makers that subscribed to Realism, the idea that film should be as close to a person standing where the camera is placed. There would be as few cuts in a scene as possible and the camera should remain at eye level. This was to emphasize the content or substance of the film.

Then there were film makers that subscribed to a new way of making film called Formalism. This kind of film goes for dramatic cuts, scene transitions, mood lighting and dramatic camera angles. Formalistic movies convey feeling through style.
Almost all film is somewhere in the middle of this substance vs style dimension.

Directors are mostly who determines where on the continuum a movie ends up.

A google search on Realism and Formalism will provide more information on what this means for a movie. The big take away to emphasize is that both of these qualities serve a purpose. A movie that goes in one direction too far is not going to appeal to a mass audience. Masterworks of film have been produced on both ends of the spectrum but a hit is most frequently in the middle.

This window into style vs substance is illuminating for RPGs also, although where one game falls is not determined by a director. Realism vs Formalism in games are usually built into a game’s mechanics, although the style of a Game Master can also influence how the game is experienced.

How could Realism and Formalism inform the design and the play of a game? Realism consists of elements that are easily called to mind, elements that readily form a mental image. Formalism consists of guiding structures that are felt more than clearly imagined.

No game could entirely follow Realism and it would be difficult to imagine playing a game that was entirely Formalism. All games have both qualities, it’s only the balance of these qualities that defines where the game lands on this spectrum.

Formalism in game design is most easily exemplified by Aspects in FATE. They are a stylistic mechanism that is very difficult to concretely define. They produce a style or feeling to play.

A traditional Formalism that is almost never treated as such is Hit Points. As they were originally intended, Hit Points were intended to represent a vital force that is worn down as a character dodged attacks. In most play they are treated as a representation of physical tissue damage a character can endure. The formalism is often too much for players to adopt and a more concrete image of physical punishment is adopted. It goes from something nebulous to a solid image of wounds inflicted. Even if it is not realistic, it has become a Realism.

Narrative control as a concept is also a Formalism. It is a largely undefined concept that gets frequently cited as a control mechanism. The idea of narrative control says who gets to talk next. While the concept seems straightforward, there are often caveats to a player having complete freedom which can make it difficult to understand what’s allowed and what isn’t.

Another Formalism is genre emulation. This is a popular Formalism to design toward because its a pattern that the designer hopes the player will recognize. However genre is not fixed. In most instances, a ground breaking piece of fiction violates genre norms. Strictly emulating genre prevents the very fact that some of the best genre pieces break the genre.

Realism is not exactly what it might seem at first. For a game to have Realism, it could be forgiven if the designer thought they were supposed to make the game play model reality. Often when a player cites realism, they actually mean a thing that is concrete, something easily imagined.

The primary example of this is the character sheet. Even thought there are no stats that define the whole of a person in life, a stat that defines the capability of a character seem abundantly real to the player. They are discrete and measurable, contradicting them would violate the player’s understanding of the game.

Similarly, even though it would be realistic for a character to lose things that they theoretically are carrying on them, it would strongly violate many player’s conception of the game to say that something written on the character sheet has gone missing. The written word on the page is easily referenced and seems incontrovertible to the player. It is more real than anything else.

Props, maps and the printed page are often considered the most real. It’s easy to point to them and reinforce “facts” that the player perceives with their own senses. The Availability Heuristic says that things that are readily available seem more real to us. This is the core concept of Realism as it is being referred to.

So Realism is in fact elements that are easily called to mind or easily demonstrated. Hit Points mentioned above exemplify something that was meant as a formalism but reducing their interpretation to physical trauma grounds them in a easily called to mind concept. A successful strike with a sword means the weapon literally impacts the character and compromises their body. Nevermind that it wasn’t meant that way as exemplified by the fact that Hit Points in D&D are restored after a long rest.

This might seem to point away from simulation as being a valid goal but that would miss the fact that simulation is easily understood. It’s repeatable and lines up with real life experiences making it easily relatable. A player’s real life experience swinging sticks at each other, pretending they’re swords, informs their expectations of how a sword fight might be experienced in fiction. Simulating those experiences makes it easy for the imagery of the narrative to spring up in the player’s mind.

Realism and Formalism have their own roles to play in every game. There are many more examples of each that can be explored and there are games that have took Formalisms and developed them into more concrete and relatable concepts making them feel more realistic. Examples of this are Archipelago’s ritual phrases and Microscope’s 3×5 cards.

This bifurcation is most easily described as style vs substance. It isn’t the only measure of a game and this isn’t intended to explain everything in RPGs but it’s a tool that describes two concepts that tie together and shape a game experience. Some players prefer a Realism based experience while others revel in Formalism. These qualities deliver different experiences that speak strongly to some but not to others. To say that one or the other is superior to the other is foolish and willfully ignores the fact that all games have some of both but more that our enjoyment of them are subjective.

Protector

I gave up on Protector. The Energy System’s version of a supers game. The unfortunate thing is that it was too difficult to create art and support all the different ages the game was supposed to go through.

I do still like the way it handles powers, so I’m releasing Protector, warts and all to the public.

This is the first game under the Energy system to use a simplified dice mechanic. There are now suggestions for how to describe a depleted die using the acronym RISKED and healing is faster now because each rest phase gives depleted dice back automatically in addition to the result of rolls.

Get the file here. Protector RPG

Updating The Energy System

We’ve been working on a streamlining of the Energy System that’s used in Jump Temp and Skree and Thrum. Currently the players all roll from their dice pool and add up all the dice. Unfortunately that’s a little math intensive. Not that people can’t do it, just that it could become tiring.

Our current thought is you pick your highest roll and all the other dice rolled add a +1.

But when we were play testing we talked about an optional possibility that a player could bring in the full value of more dice but at a cost. At first we talked about depleting that die but it didn’t feel right. It also nearly killed both characters each time that happened due to an escalation where both kept depleting dice to be ahead of the other character.

I recently had a different thought though that sounds cool to me but I don’t know how to implement yet. Instead of depleting a die when bringing in more dice, the player is “raising the stakes.” Basically putting themselves in a worse and worse position to achieve a goal.

I’m not quite sure how to do that yet. My first thought is that the other player can put a condition on the character. How to structure that condition is the question. I’m thinking that the condition is treated like any other challenge but also akin to an agent that adds a die to the roll.

The character with the condition can attack it directly to deplete it or just endure it until it depletes.

New Layout For The Lost

David Johnston did a nice A6 layout for The Lost, my solo space survival RPG. It looks very nice when printed out in booklet form. I like it better than the original layout I did. David also drew a quick picture for the front which he said I should replace, but I don’t know, I kind of like it. It has a Buck Rodgers feel that’s raw and fun.

You can download it here!

The Lost solo RPG A6

Here’s a link to David’s ultralight game Microcrunch.

An encounter die for Energy System

In OSR (and possibly other trad gamers I don’t know how wide spread the practice is) a hazard die is used as a clock to tell when an encounter happens. It’s a neat way of taking the load of timing when monsters show up off the GM’s shoulders and I’m for reducing loads on any player.

I have half a thought to introduce a hazard die to the Energy System but in the system’s style. In this case it would be a dice pool. The weird trick is that a hazard die is there to indicate a variable timing mechanism. In this case, that would be when a die depletes. Only that’s really weird because most rolls and their values are just ignored which seems like a waste.

Sometimes you can make a hazard die do more timing tasks. I think that’s what I’d like to do with rolls that don’t deplete but the system already handles most of the other things that people use to track with a hazard die.

It could indicate some kind of distance, or time interval. The system doesn’t really worry about those things though.

I could flip this and make the roll result be the number of dice in the next challenge. That means most rolls would be an encounter, but it doesn’t have to be a monster per se. It just indicates the intensity of the next challenge. When the pool depletes, You’ve reached the end of the adventure.

I’ll mull it over.

Gut Reaction RPG

I pounded this out today. Let’s see where it takes you.

Gut Reaction is statless game. You roll and go with your gut because there are no numbers to base things off of.

Go with your initial feeling. “You study long, you study wrong!” Says it all. Don’t over think it, just go.

Here’s the PDF link.

Gut Reaction

An update to an old system

For Lojec Redemption we’re using a system based on The Artifact’s Fraction Column system. It is hopefully a streamlined version of the engine that may eventually make up a 4th edition of The Artifact.

What’s different? I’m going from a percentile system to a base ten system. It lacks the granularity of the 1-100 scale but it simplifies play to an extent because of simplified math.

It also makes rolling faster and simpler. This sounds like a trivial gain but after twenty years of seeing beginning players confused by percentile rolls and more commonly the 2d10 bouncing off each other and one flying across the room, It’s nice to have 1d10 drop and it be instantly read.

The biggest problem with a base 10 scale is that the success columns don’t step down as nicely. These are really important to the system and how it functions. That’s complicated to explain unless you’ve looked at the system but suffice to say it’s how good rolls are rewarded.

Because the game is less granular I’ve had to make skills more complicated. They now have the ability to have multiple values. I know that sounds weird, but it’s not a big deal if it’s laid out in front of you, so far my players are cool with it. It does make skills take up quite a bit more space on a character sheet though and that’s a bit of an annoyance. I’m having to prune my skill list down dramatically.

Players have commented that they like the simpler list so I guess it’s not all bad. For LR the smaller list makes sense. For The Artifact it might be a problem because the setting uses skills to differentiate character abilities.

This change is really forcing a large drop in the granular nature of the system in favor of simplicity. It’s a real trade off and maybe it’s not the right move. We’re going to have to keep testing to see if it really benefits the players in a significant way.

Some ideas for Lojec Redemption

I have a lot of ideas for Lojec Redemption that I’m struggling to express. My mind is full of data points that don’t have structure yet. I’ll spew a couple here.

A main one is to equate the main threat, the AIs called Mind Shells to dragons. Not that they are giant fire spewing lizards but that they are something beyond human ability. Some theories about the dragon mythos is that they are an amalgam of all the threats people faced. I want to double down on that image. The Mind Shells are an amalgam of everything we fear about technology. For example, they see through us. They cannot be lied to. They know us better than we know ourselves. Their powers of perception are beyond what we understand or can imagine. Their abilities are not limited to a single physical form, they are data, and can move from “body” to “body” (these would be technological bodies). They can “infect” humans with meme viruses (this one I’m least prepared to flesh out). They instantly understand the complexities of a situation as soon as you turn one on, you can’t surprise them.

There would be grades of mind shells. The lowest of which is a general intelligence a bit lower than a human’s intellect. These are referred to as “golems” as they respond to instructions and carry them out.

My players have run into mimics already. They are artificial creatures that appear to be animals but reveal terrifying abilities when they attack. Common folk call them goblins. These enemies are by design unpredictable and they go a long way in conveying the weirdness that I want for this setting.

There are combat robots. At this point however most are over 100 years old, most without receiving any maintenance. Some may barely function. Better preserved combat robots are very dangerous.

My players have also encountered “intelligent terrain”. This is a region under the control of an intelligence. It may be a golem level intellect that is simply given the task of maintaining a park or natural wildlife refuge. It may be more intelligent and or aggressive. These terrains can sometimes be appeased or offended and react accordingly. I’m still fleshing out this concept but it’s best to keep the reactions subtle. Nothing that couldn’t happen in the terrain normally but definitely reactive.

Player Aspirations In A Game System

In my years of gaming, I’ve noticed that players have an aspirational need that they work to fulfill with their characters. As I’m writing this I only have a vague concept of what some of those are because I’ve never sat down and tried to hammer them out. It might be worthwhile to do so and there may be a way of running a game that uses aspirations to make characters more enjoyable.

A few of the big aspirations that are easily identified are power, control, safety, intelligence, wealth and influence. These concepts seem to show up in all players but in differing amounts. Occasionally a player will very strongly make choices toward one of these in reaction to the game world. More commonly the player decides on some kind of balance that they feel comfortable with.

That by itself is an interesting concept to me as a game designer. Particularly, am I providing access to the types of aspirations the players want? If a players aspirations are provided for, what changes occur in their play? Would they become more interested or less because the character is “finished” as far as what the player wants for them. Does keeping a character from their aspirations serve as a motivator or does it make the game less interesting?

I would like to experiment with this concept but I’m not sure of how just yet. It would be interesting to allow players free access to these aspirations and let them tune characters in play when they feel they’re not being met while keeping a concept of them being a finite resource.

To flesh out a game system that would do this, I imagine each of the aspirations being equivalent to an attribute. The player would start out even in all their abilities but would be able to shift their aspirations a set number of times to start out with and as they advance.

To allow the player characters to scale their ability, let’s steal from the Energy System and say each character starts out with a dice pool. As they advance, they can buy more dice or buy shifts in their aspirations. Rolling more dice allows for more chances of success.

Each aspiration is a number from 1 to 6. Rolling the aspiration or lower gives a success. Rolling more dice allows for more chances of success. I think all aspirations would start out at two, possibly with one starting at three. This would allow for one aspiration to be a 6 and the rest to be at one. That way there is a clear choice to make. Does the player want to be excellent at one thing? Will they enjoy playing a min-maxed character?*

Just to make things more complicated, there are intersections between aspirations. For example, the ability to throw a football accurately could be control, but the ability to throw it far and accurately would be power and control. So combining these aspirations is important in certain circumstances. Mapping out these split interactions mathematically would lead to a tangled mess of stats and be frustrating when shifting the aspirations. Instead, designating how many successes are needed along each would be more practical. A GM could say “You want to throw the football thirty yards to John, roll for one power success and one control.” and the effect is achieved.

With some refinement that could be a viable system. I’m most interested in how it effects player enjoyment of the game.

*Personally I feel that if a game can endure a min-maxed character, and still have them be functional and interesting to play, it’s doing something right.

Jump Temp – Entering and Exiting Star Systems

If a ship’s pilot wants to leave a solar system, there’s a navigation challenge to plot a course out. A common misconception is that you’d simply point the ship away from the star and start the engines.

In reality it’s not that simple. If you look at the Cassini space craft’s flight path, it actually takes a dive toward Venus before heading into the outer solar system. Looking at any space probe’s flight path thats been launched, we see a spiral flight path. Why is this? Isn’t a straight line the shortest distance between two points?

Theoretically a straight line might be the shortest, but unless you have an unbelievably powerful drive system, it’s wasteful and likely impossible to do.

For another example, if you watch a rocket launch, you ‘ll see the vehicle curve as it flies upward. This was more evident in old space shuttle launches. The roll and the curve of the take off was easier to notice. Why not just fly straight up? For one, if the rocket went straight up it would not enter orbit. It would launch up into the air, possibly making it into space but would then fall back to the earth once it’s fuel ran out. By moving sideways on it’s ascent, when it starts to fall it misses the earth and thereby enters orbit.

If the target is another planet in the star system, it must be moving fast enough to miss falling into the star it is near. This falling toward and missing is how things orbit.

In a similar way, we are orbiting the sun. If a spacecraft were to fly straight away from the sun, it would start to fall back towards the sun as soon as it’s engines were shut off. The further out the space craft traveled, the slower it would fall but it would none the less fall.

Another reason to follow an indirect path is to intersect with planets and other large gravitic bodies that the craft can steal a little momentum from and use it to speed the vehicle up without using its fuel. This gravity assist is crucial for any vessel that has a fuel supply that isn’t infinite. Although it seems strange that Cassini should move away from Saturn so it can get to Saturn faster, flying in an indirect path is the faster and more efficient.

My one player commented how flying out of a system isn’t rocket science (no really, those were his words). I laughed and answered “It absolutely is rocket science. It’s more complicated than it sounds.”

Ships in Jump Temp would never fly directly away from a star, and might occasionally drop toward the star to get a gravity boost from planets. Falling closer to the star in the middle of a system cannot be used for a gravity assist but can be used for an Oberth effect which is a little complicated but if you’re curious, you can check out  on Wikipedia.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravity_assist

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oberth_effect