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.