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.


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.


In Greek Myth, Cassandra was cursed with prophecy. She could see the future but the curse was that no one would listen to her. What I didn’t realize was that her story was more detailed than I thought. Cassandra was one of fifty to a hundred children of king Priam. She would express her prophecies in cryptic language and she often had a message that was the opposite of what people were thinking of at the time.

In some ways anyone who’s trying to convince people are like Cassandra. Particularly when it comes to marketing games, you need to convince people that your new way of doing things is worth their time. Let’s look at what causes many designers to wallow in obscurity from the lessons Cassandra teaches us.


Clout is important for anyone trying to convince others. The more connected and important you are, the more people will listen. Cassandra might seem like she would have prominence being the daughter of the king but she was likely very low on the list. Meaning that she wasn’t important enough to have the other barriers to acceptance pushed through.

It can seem odd that having people like you plays a part in if they think your input is valuable. Only not really when I say it like that. Unfortunately, plenty of designers think of their games as “speaking for themselves” which they really don’t. I know I once thought that way and I can speak from experience that’s not how it works.

Very frequently, unrecognized designers lament that there is some kind of secret cabal keeping them down. In reality it’s mostly that the people on top have other voices cheering them on. There’s something called the “second voice effect” that goes a long way to being successful. When someone says “My work is groundbreaking” you tend to just ignore them. If someone else says “Emmett’s work is groundbreaking” people start to take notice. If someone that has clout says that, people will lose faith in them if they’re sounding a false alarm. That means they have a stake in only calling out people that they really like.

There really are secret cabals going on though and this is how they work. A designer with clout sees an unknown designer do something they like. The thing isn’t groundbreaking but it’s good. A lot of the time they offer suggestions to make the game better. An educated outside eye helps to shave off the rough edges and give a design focus. Something that might have happened anyway but now it happens faster. They then promote the new designer. In the process they gain the support and admiration of the new designer and their success. Networks of designers support each other this way.

Who is in your support group?

Changing Play

Cassandra told Troy to leave the horse outside. She knew her captor would die. She knew that Agamemnon’s wife would kill him. She was right every step of the way but she was saying the opposite of what people wanted to happen. Most of the Trojans wanted to take the horse as a token of their victory. In the process of everyone grieving, having being taken away from their homes as slaves, she’s giggling. Agamemnon wanted to cool his heels after winning the war.

Game makers often try and sell their titles on the basis of uniqueness. It’s natural that a designer sees something that they don’t like and decide to remake it to their liking. The pitfall in this is learning a whole new way to play is not an easy process. It takes time and energy and no one has an infinite supply of both. We naturally want new experiences but only want to expend a little bit of energy on each experiment.

Unfortunately a lot of the time designers are trying to work out problems with existing systems. To do that, they often have to up end models that people are familiar with. The players may not even be bothered by the thing that bothered you in the first place. So even if your model is demonstrably better, it may hold no value to them.

On the flip side of this is when something is too close to an existing game. Time, energy and money are limited resources. If there’s an existing game that does mostly all the same things and it’s proven itself over time, what’s the sure bet?

Ideally then, you want your designs to be novel but have an easy path to access through what a prospective player already knows. Sometimes a smart path is to write for an established game with supplements until people know the quality of your work and then once you have clout built up you can ask more of them.

Too Far Ahead

Cassandra spoke her prophecies in riddles. To her, they seemed obvious because she had seen the future. To everyone else she’s talking crazy talk about bulls and cows.

This is similar to the curse of knowledge. Because you know a thing so intimately, it seems obvious. Unfortunately you may have taken several steps already in your design process and you can’t remember why you took steps 2 and 4. When others look at your design, it doesn’t speak to them the way it does to you. They don’t know where you’re going and it’s going to take effort on their part to figure it out.

Do they need to figure it out? Maybe you’re a prophet with important insights. Maybe you’re just a lunatic. To them the latter seems more likely. It’s usually best to ignore the crazy talk.

If you’re just wandering, you may find shiny bits lying in the sand. Instead of making everyone recreate your trek through the dessert, remake the path directly to the reward you want everyone to find. That means throwing out 9/10th of everything you did and starting over.

If you have a mission or you’re remaking your map to the reward (which are the same thing), know why you’re taking each step in the design process. Beyond that, record for yourself why you took each step. These whys can be used to explain your game to others. Maybe they’re not looking for the reward you’re sharing, that’s okay. You’ll attract the people that will appreciate what you’re offering.

But don’t give them crazy talk and hope the “mystery” of it will entice them to figure out the puzzle you’ve constructed.

Try This

Make allies, help them get where they want to go. They may return the favor.

Start by doing something novel but not something that takes a lot of effort to learn.

Know your message and be ready to translate your message to others.

I’m writing this mostly to myself. I heard a podcast about Cassandra and her problems getting people to listen to her and I realized that I had done everything wrong that she did. All my false steps came swirling out in front of me. I’ll try and do better now that I know this but don’t be surprised if I slip back into old habits.

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.

The Lost Solo RPG

I always wanted to make a solo RPG and today I came up with something of a formula for how to make one. This is very preliminary but I put together a game I’m calling The Lost, about a small starship that is trying to get back home.

The Lost

I’m hoping to be able to use the structure here to do other RPGs but for this one, I would like to expand on the moves and the hazard tables.


I added a few moves and clarified some language.

Updated again 4-16-18

Added two new navigation hazards.

Whisperers using Gut Reaction

Some time ago, my son and I did some world building on a modern day setting where people were being turned into monsters. The monsters look like regular people but they take victims and turn them into more monsters.

The players are hunters, regular people that have lost loved ones to the monsters or “agents” that are pulling strings for a shadowy organization.

This time we’re telling it with a little twist. It’s said that the Whisperers will destroy the world but who are the whisperers?

The trick to this setting is that it can’t be all written down because knowledge is the real power in this game. That fits pretty well with the Gut Reaction RPG that I just wrote.

So here it is, Whisperers

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.