Systems That Model The World Rather Than The Story

Reynard

Legend
I largely agree, but then I even more dislike the asymmetry that arises when there's Morale checks that can force NPCs to flee etc. Same applies to "social mechanics" e.g. Intimidate in 3e D&D.

What's the answer? For me it's to drop or ignore a lot of those sort of rules completely, as the other option would be to have them apply equally to PCs and NPCs alike, and that would play hell with player agency.
Morale checks -- or reaction rolls -- can be a useful tool as GM if I have no particular reason to choose when the goblins will break and run or whether they will be immediately hostile. Since I personally like a little chaos at the table because I too like to be surprised, I tend to incorporate random stuff fairly regularly, including how monsters and NPCs react and behave.

But I think the literal most important part of RPGs is player agency over their own character's choices*, so I don't like mechanics that remove that. I don't mind things like intimidate that apply a condition against the PC, but it is up to the player to interpret how the fiction and mechanics combined effect their roleplay.

*Let's NOT use this thread to argue about the definition of agency, please.
 

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RareBreed

Adventurer
I've made many a post lamenting the lack of "reality modelling" in today's games. Just recently, I made a post in another thread about why I believe these game systems have fallen out of favor.

I believe that reality modelling in gaming has essentially gone extinct (even in indie games) for one big reason: time. It takes a lot of time to learn, and it takes a lot of time to play games which factor in more of "how the world works". Since the 90s, with the advent of the internet and home computers, our choice of entertainment has become truly dizzying. Games have to compete with so much now, that it needs to be quick to pick up, and quick to play. Back in the 80s when you had to wait until 8pm once a week to watch your favorite TV show (no binge watching!), I spent many a night poring over a game or supplement after school for hours. That's just not going to happen for many people nowadays.

People just don't want (or have time) to invest time in any kind of skill. I've talked to a few people in their early to mid 20s and asked them why TikTok had become so popular. I asked "why not youtube? There's tons of videos there too". They said "they are too long". I was like, oh dear. At work, many fellow engineers don't want to take the time to learn a challenging new language like rust, haskell or lisp. I've given up even trying to get others onboard, even though in the long run, using the right tool for the right job will simplify their work lives (I don't ever want to see another null pointer exception in my life, but my coworkers don't seem to care).

This is a sad state of affairs, because like money, a little investment up front yields big dividends. But trying to get people to do this investment is like pulling teeth.

Before going farther, I'll explain what I consider "reality modelling" to be. Some will say it is about "realism" and claim "there is no such thing", or some other straw man. The problem with thinking like this is ignoring what model means. A model is a stand in for reality, not reality itself. But the closer it can approximate reality, the more useful it becomes. Anyone who dares to suggest that a system like Hit Points, where a character is absolutely fine until reaching 0 points is no less realistic versus a game that actually models things like bleeding, broken bones, structural damage per hit location, etc....clearly has either never played a game with such modelling or is apologizing for their favorite game's lack of said features. Claiming "I like hit points because they make game play more smooth" is a far cry different from "hit points model health as realistically as a system an EMT would be comfortable with".

So, in the definition above I said the more useful it becomes. I believe this is the point of contention with people who want games that focus on the story. They will ask "how is it more useful? In the storytelling is all mindset, what matters is the thematic arc of a game, what the episode means, and not the details of how the sausage was made. This is where I will stand on my hill and die on it and claim that is putting the cart before the horse. The "how" of things are story hooks that give more meaning in two ways. They provide more visceral detail than when everything is abstracted away, and if the model is good enough, frees us from plausible denial in how things wound up the way they did (ie, the story arc).

But reality modelling goes deeper than just combat. Take for example lifepath systems, or literal world building. In that sense I will say that Traveller kick started a lot of these deeper concerns. One's character could even die during chargen in Traveller! I've always liked lifepath systems, due to preventing what I call the "Professor with Artillery skill" when a player is allowed to choose whatever skills they want for their character concept (GM to player, "so, how exactly did your PhD wind up knowing how to shoot heavy weapons even though he has no other obvious military background/skills?").

And because Traveller had a huge universe with thousands of worlds, they came up with an elaborate system for generating worlds based on star type. And because it was a Sci-Fi game, what Sci-Fi game worth its salt doesn't have lots of rules for starships? They took this to a zenith with 2300AD's Star Cruiser rules, which pretty much required a calculator or spreadsheet, and made the designer think about cross section size for visibility/reflection purposes.
 

RareBreed

Adventurer
I decided to put this in a separate post, since it was already too big :D

I've had a homebrew game "in the works" for about 20 years :D I wanted to show this snippet of a design doc to show why I think that without being more "realistic" and focusing just on the narrative and getting those pesky dice and tactical choices out of the way actually harms story telling

Most combat in RPG's are not realistic or even narratively interesting at all. Most games typically allow each
participant in the combat an equal number of actions and reactions. And even games that let characters have more
actions than others still allow automatic defensive reactions, and generally apply an evenness or "fairness" to combat.
Combat however, is anything but fair, and if you are playing fair, either you are in a duel, or doing it wrong. Most
games show this fairness by trading action for action:

  • Character A attacks
  • NPC B blocks/dodges
  • NPC B attacks
  • Character A blocks/didges

This is not only unrealistic, it is narratively boring. How many boxing matches or UFC fights do you see alternating
like that? None. In the real world, opponents size each other up then unleash a flurry of attacks, stopping only to
rest, regain balance, or because the defender was able to counter and seize the initiative. For example, the defender
might be trapping the attack, sweeping the legs, or side stepping out of the line of attack. Or maybe one combatant
only throws out an exploratory jab or thrust, perhaps as a feint, or perhaps to judge his opponents reflexes, and the
other combatant may still just hold, waiting for an opening to attack or escape.

In the latter scenario where a defender only defends, what is in it for him game-wise in most systems? All he has done
is allow the attacker a shot. Without rules for fatigue or tactical advantage, there is absolutely no reason from a
meta game perspective for a character to ever hold back attacks. Perhaps in other game systems, there is a special rule
(ala a Feat or Advantage) where if they defend for one round, they gain some kind of tactical advantage. But then you
have to learn the umpteen million special Feat rules, and how they interact with each other in combat. I will argue
that although protean initially looks more complex, in the long run it is actually simpler, because there are less special
rules you need to learn or keep track of.

Going back to the example fight, many fans of other game systems will simply tell you that all of the above is
happening in those games, but the turn and initiative system simply abstracts it away. In other words, a roll of the
dice doesn't reflect a single blow or a single defense. Instead, the rolls are an abstraction of one or more attacks
or defenses, and the result of the dice is the sum effect of the actions. And yet, how often is the narrative described
that way? Also, even if the above is true, why does each side effectively always get to attack and defend? And why do
the opponents each get the same number of chances to attack/defend? That is not how real fights work, as when you hear
in boxing "he's got him on the ropes", "he's on his last legs", "the enemy has seized the initiative", "the enemy is on
the run", etc etc. So even if you assume combat is abstracted into multiple blows, feints, parries, etc, it still allows for
"fairness" by allowing each opponent similar opportunities.

The way virtually every combat system works is the combatants stand their ground, and trade blow for blow until someone
gets a good shot in (ie, a good dice roll). If you argue that the combat is abstracted away, and the combatants are
jockeying for advantageous position, sizing each other up, stepping back to take a breath etc, how often is that
actually described? I argue that you have just abstracted not only alot of the fun away (tactical decision making) but
also much of the storytelling, narrative description, and the reward of victory (by making good choices, rather than
letting the dice abstract it away). Wouldn't you rather actually make those distinctions in the game rules rather
than (forget) to make them up as flowery description?

The most common argument against such crunchy rules is that it makes combat take longer and thus takes away from the
story by focusing too much time on combat. Though combat will take more time due to this level of simulation, I feel it
is a worthwhile trade. As I mentioned earlier, I think it is actually better for storytelling than the too abstracted
combat systems of other games. I also will argue that victory will feel more sweet, because you have put more thought
and effort into it. I will also argue that combat may not take as much time as one would think compared to other systems,
because combat in protean will be more lethal or at least render characters hors de combat much faster than most games.
While simulating the action may take longer, successful hits will be more brutal than most games (especially ones using hit
points) and thus combatants will be taken out of combat with fewer hits (often just one).
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
I'm not actually convinced that some world-emulation games are that much more complex than some others oriented around game or story more. Exalted is hardly a world-emulator in any real sense, for example.

(Of course this turns on how far you have to drill down before you consider something a world emulator, but that's more an issue of how much detail you feel you need than whether the result on the whole represent the world setting accurately).
 

Those kinds of rules systems are less common now, with other concerns such as modeling genre tropes or story beats etc... have become popular. And those kinds of games are great for their purposes, but they don't quite scratch that "modeled physics" itch some of us have when we are pretending to be an elf.
I have that itch, although not as much as I previously did. I'd suggest it's primarily about grounding the GM in the world; forming a solid, predictable set of internalized principles, from which characters and events can logically unfold. As such, it's more about evoking a rather nebulous sense of comfort and authenticity in the referee, and is of less utility to players. I'm really a simulationist at heart, although painfully cognizant of the limitations of any given model.

I find that ruminating on the mechanical "truths" of the game often leads to interesting results which can propel the game in unexpected directions; they emerge almost as though unbidden: perhaps my unconscious has been processing possibilities, and they suddenly pop into full view. The rules of the simulated reality act as a filter to contain and describe what is plausible or likely.

My general sense when encountering systems without at least some kind of skeleton of "modelled physics" - for want of a better term - is one of being adrift; without solid purchase.
 

I think what matters more than anything is internal consistency. It doesn't matter if you're going full Nintendo aesthetic or gritty grimsouls suffering sim; if theres an inconsistency, and in particular one severe enough to come up in play either regularly or in a pivotal moment, then it doesn't matter what your aesthetics or mechanics are like, the gameworld isn't going to be as effective as it could be.

This was something I had to tackle with my game's take on HP; I started out renaming it to Composure, and positoning it as not being any sort of actual, significant physical wounds. Composure, as the name implies, is simply your basic capability to defend yourself and keep up the fight.

While minor wounds can be a part of what happens as Composure dwindles, no character is considered to have taken a "true" wound just because they lost their Composure. As such, when one drops to 0CP mechanically, they are not dead and are still able to act...mostly.

Dropping to 0 will cut your speed down to 1 Hex per turn in Combat, and halve your party's Pacing (travel speed) if they can't carry you or put you on a mount. Additionally, you lose the ability to react, making it nearly impossible to defend yourself (there's actually a growing rigmarole you can go through if you're going hyper offensive, but thats pretty niche), which leads us into the next solution.

Now, while this nixes the whole HP=meat problem, as well as disincentivizes yoyo healing, it does leave open the question of how death is threatened and how actually getting hurt is represented; ie, that internal consistency where danger actually makes sense and correlates to how it would be in real life, if abstracted through mechanics.

Solving that conundrum actually came about as the confluence of solving a few different concurrent problems.

The initial root problem was weapon diversity. I was starting with the assumption of the 3 basic damage types that DND uses, and I needed a way to make weapons feel differentiated at a base level (I was already assuming my extensive Crafting mechanics, but I wanted something more core as a foundation). So what I came up with was expanding the damage types into damage type combos. Ie, Blunt/Slashing is its own damage type.

That started the ball rolling, and as I kept thinking on it I came to the conclusion that physical damage needed to, as Magic is going to do, enable different Status Conditions tied to the damage types. (Ala Pokemon basically)

With that, it became pretty easy to flesh out weapons at a core level, and now before Crafting is even taken into account Weapons have become about as indepth as spells (which to be clear are not the same kind of spells we see in DND; mine are much simpler).

The issue with this though was that, initially, I was having trouble coming up with different conditions I could tie to all these damage types. The solution there is what ended up looping in the Composure problem: Status Conditions are now called Wounds, and just by contextualizing them in that way, I not only opened up the design space for both weapons and magic, but also restored the necessary physical damage that the game had removed.

So now how it works essentially is that Wounds can potentially happen at any time depending on how a fight goes (they're primarily inflicted through my Momentum system, but some are saving throw based as well), and when one drops to 0CP, they automatically take a Wound if they get attacked, with the wound correlating to whatever kind of attack, weapon, or spell they got hit with. Most Wounds deal damage over time, in addition to their other effects, and those that don't usually have pretty big damage coming with them. If the character at this point takes an amount of damage equal to their normal max CP, they then die.

However, when a character has dropped to 0CP, any attacking individual has the option to take a Killing Blow against them, and kill them immediately. And with how its been run thus far, its proven good practice for the GM to, in general, never assume a monster will assume a Killing Blow as part of their attack, whereas PCs are assumed to unless they say otherwise, even after the fact.

Which all makes sense; my game is fast paced and can be pretty lethal (in both directions), so giving the PCs a reprieve against getting one-shotted against most enemies is just good sense, as by the time that glove comes off the PCs are presumably going to be on top of keeping themselves in fighting shape, and if they aren't, well, sucks to suck as the saying goes.

So long story short, while how my game models this isn't necessarily close to real life (or may be it is; i haven't really given it much thought), it is internally consistent.

Between the above, as well as the fact that Composure is a saving throw type in of itself, that characters use not just as a modifier to make throws, but as a sliding DC for any Composure throws they make other characters do, its never really going to feel like Composure is this abstracted thing that doesn't make sense, at least in the context of the gameworld.

And those are just the two big mechanical things that contribute to this. In a more meta design sense, Ive also got some useful symmetry going on. Composure and Stamina are already essentially paired; they make sense together, alongside Wounds, as a collective representation of how worn down and out a character has become physically.

Mana however didn't initially have a pairing, and while you can squint and see it make sense pairing with Composure, it doesn't really. At least not in a satisfying way.

Eventually, I came up with the new Energy Acuity, which was a result of needing to expand my Attribute list and give myself more room for Skills. This not only gave me a synergistic pairing for Mana, but also solved a bunch of neat problems. Acuity for instance is your Passive Perception, and also serves as your essential "power" to utilize your Charisma and Intuition (the new attribute) skills.

It also gave me a way to firmly root Summoner and Psionic characters (as opposed to Martials and Casters) in the same general character development loops as other character types.

And all of this together, among other things Im too tired to recall atm, all contribute to that internal consistency.

All of this incidentally is also a great big example of my design philosophy that focuses on integration. All of these things I described are pretty tightly bound together with the expectation that they'll be feeding back on each other as the gameplay loops kick in.

While it sounds convoluted to explain a greatly interwoven web of mechanics and aesthetics, in practice its been a dream, or so my playtesters say anyway, given its incredible they stick with it with how radically the system has diverged and diversified in scope from where I started.
 

aramis erak

Legend
Are there any recent games in this mold?
Yeah, but most don't even get known
True.

I've said this before, but I find the idea of "simulationistic superheroes" rather appealing. What would really happen if people had such powers and how would they really function when we do away with genre conventions and plot contrivances and model the physics and the society realistically?
I guess the Boys is one answer to this, although I'm not sure results necessarily need to be quite that bleak.
So is Wild Cards (the novels, not the games). And the BBC's Misfits. There is a GURPS Wildcards; I had it, it's pretty much mostly setting info, relying upon GURPS Supers.
I don't think there's any RPGs out there with well-considered sociological models to tell us how the cultures of the world move forward in time. Someone can correct me if I am wrong.
The Setting of Traveller:2300 (later 2300 AD) originated in a played out kriegspielish wargame with over a dozen players... Good play is how the French wound up dominant in the setting.

Was it well considered sociologically? well, probably not in an objective level, but way more than the vast majority of games.
10 minutes of playing GURPS in a superhero setting would end the appeal instantly, trust me.
Not true. It took us 2 weeks, then someone joined the group playing a wizard in week 3.... that the wizard was much more potent than the supers was a real eye opener. And THAT ruined the appeal.
Modeling super powers through a numeric input/output structure like the GURPS engine will give you the least superhero like gameplay possible.
Also false. It may not encourage it, but it's still up to the GM and players. Many GURPS players are quite prone to sticking to genre. Even as they pointmonger the hell out of their characters mechanically, they will often play the genre as well as their fragile freak PC can allow.
It will not resemble anything remotely like an actual comic book even if you want it to.
Having seen it do just that... but it requires people who don't have a negative view of the setting tropes nor of GURPS.
 

RareBreed

Adventurer
I'm not actually convinced that some world-emulation games are that much more complex than some others oriented around game or story more. Exalted is hardly a world-emulator in any real sense, for example.
I believe the same. Things seem complex when a game's rules need lots of one offs to cover different (but similar) situations. My big beef with feats in D&D based games, is they effectively create exceptions to the rules so now you have to learn what every exception is.

Take for example an extreme game with only 3 attribites: Mind, Spirit and Body. Simple right? Until you want your character to be weaker than their Body stat normally is, but more agile. Ok, instead of just having....you know....Strength and Agility as attributes, you need these special traits that are modifiers.
 

aramis erak

Legend
Something to learn from video game designers is that trying to model actual physics is a dead end outside of specific and tightly focused simulations, and even then. The truest to life flight sims aren't really all that close and really can't be without it becoming a barrier to play on many different fronts; there's still a great deal of abstractions going on to ensure the game works as a game.
Funny, but sim time in a suitable simulator is a required bit of USN, USAF, USMC, USCG, NOAA, and much civil flight training, especially for the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) rating. A P3 sim handles pretty much like a P3, according to the pilots thereof.

Also, the US Army and USMC are starting to use simulators for armored vehicles, too. Doesn't take a whole lot of computer power to do a decent sim that teaches the important elements... and the noise, cramped spaces, sudden bumps and jerks... and rotes of driving, shooting, and using the visual systems are easily replicated.

Oh, and Microsoft Flight Sim 2000? it's Cessna 150 and DeHaviland DHC-2 Beaver both handle very much like the real deal... including ground effect, thermal riding, and ground handling... as long as you have a proper flight stick and pedals. (The DHC-2's I was in were yokes, actually...)


RPGs as sims have a huge burden - the HumanOS isn't all that good at it.
 

Funny, but sim time in a suitable simulator is a required bit of USN, USAF, USMC, USCG, NOAA, and much civil flight training, especially for the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) rating. A P3 sim handles pretty much like a P3, according to the pilots thereof.

Also, the US Army and USMC are starting to use simulators for armored vehicles, too. Doesn't take a whole lot of computer power to do a decent sim that teaches the important elements... and the noise, cramped spaces, sudden bumps and jerks... and rotes of driving, shooting, and using the visual systems are easily replicated.

Oh, and Microsoft Flight Sim 2000? it's Cessna 150 and DeHaviland DHC-2 Beaver both handle very much like the real deal... including ground effect, thermal riding, and ground handling... as long as you have a proper flight stick and pedals. (The DHC-2's I was in were yokes, actually...)


RPGs as sims have a huge burden - the HumanOS isn't all that good at it.

Sims are a good and necessary training tool of course, but even the big purpose built rigs are still not going to replace actual flight time. There's a number of planes Im technically qualified to take through power up and taxi, and I could probably stumble my way through talking to the tower, but if I take the thing into the air I'm probably not going to have a very easy time, assuming I don't crash.

But it was more my point that flight sims, as games, hinge on abstractions to make them work as fun games to play.

Biggest single example is that even for the milsims like DCS, you're not obligated to know what you're doing to be able to hop into an expensive jet, and that you can do whatever you want is also a pretty big abstraction of what it really means to be a pilot.

And thats all fine, because those are part of what make those games super duper fun.
 

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