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Worlds of Design: Human vs. Superhuman

The second season of The Mandalorian helped me realize that functional versus emotional modeling applies to both Star Wars and tabletop role-playing games.

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You can't relate to a superhero, to a superman, but you can identify with a real man who in times of crisis draws forth some extraordinary quality from within himself and triumphs but only after a struggle.”—Timothy Dalton​

Functional vs. Emotional Modeling in RPGs​

When you want to model a particular character (in Dungeons & Dragons terms in this example) you can use the functional method or the emotional method.
  • The functional method observes what the character can do and chooses D&D character classes and powers that match. So when I wrote my Moria introductory adventure some 40 years ago I made Aragorn a seventh level Ranger and Gandalf an eighth level cleric with a ring of warmth who could use a magic sword. In the very low magic world of Middle-Earth they stood out very strongly at these levels. But I didn’t feel I could make Gandalf higher than eighth level because the ninth level cleric can raise dead (the coolest move in games), beyond Gandalf’s abilities.
  • The emotional method positioned Aragorn and Gandalf as near-mythical stature within Middle-Earth and so they needed to stand out in comparison with other D&D characters and monsters: in the upper teens in levels. Those levels don’t work for the functional method because characters that high can do more than anyone other than the Valar themselves can do in Middle-Earth.
Similarly, you can make a movie where the heroes stand out in comparison with typical characters (people) but are not superhuman. Or you can make heroes who do many things that a human could never do. That seems to be how Star Wars works sometimes—Jedi as superheroes rather than as merely human, which is more like a superhero comic book than a novel.

How This Applies to The Mandalorian

In my opinion, Star Wars has never been particularly realistic. But we’ve become accustomed to the fact that stormtroopers can never hit our heroes (even the very normal-human ones like Han Solo) with their (non-automatic!?) weapons—except when the target wears magic armor, er, Beskar steel, which is impervious to blaster bolts and other energy weapons. Beskar gets hit a lot! Nor does the (non-Beskar) stormtrooper armor ever protect the wearer from either energy bolts or physical attacks, at least not by Our Heroes. And so on.

Jedi do the physically impossible by blocking multiple simultaneous blaster shots. Yet even when they turn around to look elsewhere or say something to someone, they don’t get hit. Functionally, they’re superheroes. Some readers will remember the days of the Comics Code Authority, when virtually no one died in superhero comic books, and of course if a superhero appeared to die, somehow he or she would be back later.

How This Applies to RPGs​

In RPGs we also can consider these two forms in relation to the player characters. Are the player characters extraordinary humans (or whatever species they may be) or are they over-the-top superheroes who can do just about anything without suffering significant harm?

The answer to that question determines the type of game you play. Extraordinary people face tougher struggles and are therefore better modeled by simulationist games. For games where the player characters are truly superhuman, I think narrative and storytelling games do a better job of modeling gameplay.

Your Turn: Which point of view do you prefer as a player? And what do you prefer when you GM?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

DEFCON 1

Legend
All of these things are "fictional"-- (not in the traditional sense that these stories are not based upon actual events)-- but that in all of these TV, film, and games of the action variety... the characters get into more fights than anyone ever actually does in "real life". And the recovery time of these characters after these fights in these fictional action worlds also have no basis in any sort of reality. As a result... EVERYONE in these films, tv shows, games, novels etc. are superhuman. There's not a single normal person in any of them.

There's a reason why boxers and MMA fighters go months between fights. Because the training and recovery after one of them is that grueling. And yet in all these fictions, characters get into essentially an MMA fight, get up, brush themselves off, and then quite possibly get into another MMA fight tomorrow or even later that day. No concussions, no loss of faculty, no fear of getting hurt like that again, not a single normal human response to having been kicked in the face seventeen times in a matter of minutes.

As far as gun combat... I have never served in the military so I have no authority to speak on the subject... but I'd be very curious as to how much time an actual soldier has between engagements. Do they go from one firefight to the next over and over again day after day as we see in all of these fictional stories? Or if they survive a firefight (big if)... do they actually have a period of downtime after an engagement to return to their base, and recover both mentally, physically, and emotionally before being sent back out on another mission? Because in Star Trek we are meant to think that the bridge crew can get into a firefight with their phasers and once the concern is taken care of, they go right back to their positions on the bridge and keep working as though nothing actually happened. Now maybe that is realistic (and someone more qualified than me can speak on it).. but to me it doesn't feel realistic at all. That you can just flip a switch after surviving an actual gunfight and go right back to normal, everyday work once you're done... like we see all the time in TV, film, and games. Again.. those characters feel superhuman to me.

We humans use combat and fighting as one way of creating "drama" for our stories. It's easy, it's exciting, and feel hyper-realistic. But rarely does it seem like that combat is ever treated with any sense of actual humanity. Or at least that's the impression I get from it.
 
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Maybe because Dungeons and Dragons is not the best model for all genres. Maybe that is why it never did justice to Tolkien's Middle-earth because the story was not written specifically for RPG Player Character classes.
D&D is an odd duck. I love it with all my heart, but it wears its origins on its sleeve. Even now, it's 1/2 RPG and 1/2 Wargame. Don't ask it to do complex social things, complex economics, complex narrative mechanics, etc.

You can do those things, in the same way that I could do mass military combat in a white wolf game. But the system coughs and sputters when you do.
 

FoolishFrost

Explorer
i Find that Fate does exceptionally well at dealing with this. Generally, it allows for differing apparent power levels by isolating what each character considers a threat.

ie, while superman is invulnerable in most cases, he can be hurt by hightech, magic, and kryptonite. Lois, on the other hand, has to face off against publishing deadlines, disgruntled expose subjects, and getting Clark to finally get a clue...

even in the comics, each character tends to exist in a narrative bubble, except when they have overlaps.
 

Mallus

Legend
I have a lot of random thoughts on this, but for starters let me say D&D appeals to me because it moves from 'extraordinary normal person' to 'superhero' in the span of a single long campaign.
 

jgsugden

Legend
The answer depends upon the rules, as well as the game master and players. There is no one answer - the answer is the spectrum.

If I'm playing a Marvel Super Heroes game, I want it to be heroic and amazing (start to finish). If I am playing a Western or Zombie Apocalypse game, I want it to be gritty realism (start to finish, with them never feeling like they are in control of their world - instead the world is hunting them). If I'm playing Paranoia, I want it to be tragic and funny (start to finish to start to finish ....) If I'm playing D&D, I want the PCs to feel very 'mortal' at level one, but by the time they hit the highest levels I want them to feel more than human - I want them to be legend (wait for it) airy.

And, within each of those answers, there is variance depending upon the GM/DM and the players involved. For example, if the DM is planning to run a political campaign in D&D, I don't think a super heroic feel works as well for that style of game. We want the PCs to feel like there are a lot of people running around that are their equals, or even superiors, so that there is competition. However, if the PCs are in a campaign long quest that culminates in a "save the world" situation, I want them to feel like they are amongst the most powerful beings in the world when they reach the end.
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
I justify player characters becoming godlike because of the things they were brave enough to encounter. But they should only be that powerful to the average person, not in comparison to the challenges they continue to face. If you think about it too much it is very strange. Really any random person in a D&D setting could just decide to start adventuring and become an insanely powerful being. Though adventuring clearly has its risks, with enough money, literally anything seems to be possible, in D&D anyway.

When it comes to Star Wars, it has very common DNA with Indiana Jones. Spielberg and Lucas were both guys who grew up with pulp novels and comics where the hero always survived against ridiculous odds. My read of those properties now is that they are childhood fantasies. Nothing wrong with that. We just have to leave the realism at the door.

The old WEG Star Wars game goes into explanation as to how the players should encounter insurmountable odds and then heroically escape, while in D&D we painstakingly balance our encounters. Break out your CR to XP calculators, time to make a dungeon!

But as every introduction to an RPG states, this is your game and you get to define how it is played. I enjoy perma-death, tactics, stats, crunch, because that is how I prefer to work out a challenge. If there is no risk in failure then I am going to fall asleep. I always find it kind of funny when people want to make the most powerful character they can because every time I end up that powerful I get bored. If you can't lose then its not a game, and not all TTRP "G"'s are games. Which is fine if that's what you like.
 

NotAYakk

Legend
As far as gun combat... I have never served in the military so I have no authority to speak on the subject... but I'd be very curious as to how much time an actual soldier has between engagements. Do they go from one firefight to the next over and over again day after day as we see in all of these fictional stories? Or if they survive a firefight (big if)... do they actually have a period of downtime after an engagement to return to their base, and recover both mentally, physically, and emotionally before being sent back out on another mission?
It depends.

What war are we talking about? How desperate are the fighters? Are we talking WW1, WW2, Vietnam, Desert Storm, US Civil War, Napoleonic Wars, Persian battle with Greeks at Thermopylae, Roman legions, Alexander the Great, the 100 years war, the Seven Warring States of China?

In WW1 when intense firefight trench battles stretched for months on end, troops that couldn't be relieved became far less effective than those who could. Same is true of the various other ones. OTOH, there where people who did fight for extremely long periods of time without really stopping for much, even getting limited sleep.

Shell shock was used to describe the crazy PTSD soldiers got from that experience in WW1.

Soldiers with better gear and numbers have soundly lost against inferior numbers when they are exhausted enough by constant battle. Take a look at some of the seiged islands in the pacific in WW2.
 

This is not only with the tabletop boardgames, but also with the videogames, a great cultural influence among the new generations, because in the games we need a right balance between power and weakness, success and failure. The original superheroes previous to digital age weren't designed to be adapted into videogames. In some cases it is possible, for example Batman, Spiderman or the Avengers, but Superman is not, but if you break some power balance.


And we are used videogames aren't totally realistic, for example in Call of Duty or Grand Thief Auto a bullet is not enough to kill you, and recovering for the injuries is slower, very much slower. It is not only passing over a medic-kit. In the other side the new generations don't allow suspension of the belief when the bad guys have got a horrible aim and the hero is never hit. They have played too many shooters to know even the worst shooter can be enoughly luck some time.

And now we have wuxia fiction, like in the movie "Tiger & Dragon" where teorically the "cultivators" are ordinary humans with a hard training but they can do more than olimpic athletes, jumping over the trees. Fighters from Mortal Kombat can defeat Superman because this is vulnerable to magic, and the qui/chi techniques works as this.

* And I say again d20 system is not ready yet for a compatibility between melee weapons and firearms. If these are added, the classes as barbarian, paladin or monk will be forgotten. If we use some examples, PCs based in Street Fighters couldn't survive in Overwatch, or from Mortal Kombat couldn't defeat the doom (slayer) marine. Don't you remember any survival horror videogame when the PC gets enough weapons and ammo to fight the boss monsters? for example Resident Evil or Evil Within.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
...you can use the functional method or the emotional method.
  • The functional method observes what the character can do and chooses D&D character classes and powers that match. So when I wrote my Moria introductory adventure some 40 years ago I made Aragorn a seventh level Ranger and Gandalf an eighth level cleric with a ring of warmth who could use a magic sword. In the very low magic world of Middle-Earth they stood out very strongly at these levels. But I didn’t feel I could make Gandalf higher than eighth level because the ninth level cleric can raise dead (the coolest move in games), beyond Gandalf’s abilities.
  • The emotional method positioned Aragorn and Gandalf as near-mythical stature within Middle-Earth and so they needed to stand out in comparison with other D&D characters and monsters: in the upper teens in levels. Those levels don’t work for the functional method because characters that high can do more than anyone other than the Valar themselves can do in Middle-Earth.
...The answer to that question determines the type of game you play. Extraordinary people face tougher struggles and are therefore better modeled by simulationist games. For games where the player characters are truly superhuman, I think narrative and storytelling games do a better job of modeling gameplay.

Your Turn: Which point of view do you prefer as a player? And what do you prefer when you GM?
I'm a little fuzzy on the thread subject (functions vs. emotions? Low vs. high-level? Realistic vs. supernatural?) but the game I play has a pretty simple solution for serving both extraordinary characters and superhuman characters: the GM turns the dials by setting a Campaign Theme and by using a relative Difficulty table:

The Campaign Theme sets the bar for how special the PCs will be, and what sort of zany antics the setting will generate.
The Difficulty table recommends roll bonuses based on the relative difficulty (easy through divine) of an action.

So Aragorn and Gandalf could have a ton of simulationist levels if the GM wants to run that type of game. The character levels would give them bonuses to achieve higher results on the Difficulty table. Or, if the theme calls for the emotional method (?), maybe slicing orcs in half is relatively easy, and a low-level Aragorn and Gandalf can do just fine without high bonuses to their rolls.

I prefer the ...emotional method?... since it seems to avoid hours of nitpicking over whether a given character can actually use a particular spell or achieve a certain outcome on the Success of Climbing Ladders table.
 


Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
When it comes to storm troopers and aim, the main scene people think of the Millennium Falcon was supposed to escape. In addition, we don't know the full capabilities of Storm Trooper armor from the movies.

I'm sure someone that's more of a fan can fill in details. But even non Star Wars movies the protagonists have plot armor until the plot demands that they don't. Then they either have enough energy for a death monologue or have "mere" flesh wound.
 

Mannahnin

Adventurer
There's a reason why boxers and MMA fighters go months between fights. Because the training and recovery after one of them is that grueling. And yet in all these fictions, characters get into essentially an MMA fight, get up, brush themselves off, and then quite possibly get into another MMA fight tomorrow or even later that day. No concussions, no loss of faculty, no fear of getting hurt like that again, not a single normal human response to having been kicked in the face seventeen times in a matter of minutes.
I'm on board with most of your post, but isn't this presupposing the "meat points" interpretation? Hit Points are intended to model heroics like John Carter's and Conan's. They're not beat up all the time. Most blows which would have killed an ordinary person they fend off, tiring a bit and perhaps sustaining a minor scratch or bruise.

Of course, then we run into the issue of that explanation conflicting with PCs being able to be dropped to zero and springing right back up, but of course that's a product of people changing Gary's original rules. In OD&D and AD&D if you did get dropped you were either dead or badly wounded and in need of substantial recovery time before you'd be in any shape for combat or adventuring.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
The thing is D&D condenses all of real world reality in the first 5 levels. Past level 5, everyone is superheroes.

Edit: The issue becomes that many want to lengthen the time as normal human while keeping the simple constantly additive rule.

It really can't happen. You can't add more levels, keep adding numbers per level, AND stay mundane. Most "long time as a mundie" RPG games either don't have much level or has progression a lot slower.keep adding +1 attack and +5 how and you won't stay normal long.
 
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DEFCON 1

Legend
I'm on board with most of your post, but isn't this presupposing the "meat points" interpretation? Hit Points are intended to model heroics like John Carter's and Conan's. They're not beat up all the time. Most blows which would have killed an ordinary person they fend off, tiring a bit and perhaps sustaining a minor scratch or bruise.

Of course, then we run into the issue of that explanation conflicting with PCs being able to be dropped to zero and springing right back up, but of course that's a product of people changing Gary's original rules. In OD&D and AD&D if you did get dropped you were either dead or badly wounded and in need of substantial recovery time before you'd be in any shape for combat or adventuring.
Yeah, the whole hit points thing is one big kluge, whether its meat points or stamina or whatever and however you wish to think about it. After all, even disregarding the whole "get hit by an axe 10 times in a single fight" idea by suggesting that instead it was all nicks and scratches... still has to narratively contend with having magic missiles, fireballs, lightning bolts, cones of cold, inflict wounds etc. etc. etc. all being absorbed by a person that they also just "shake off" once the combat ends-- and then they get right back up to have another combat within 5 minutes.

In D&D, the story is these characters are getting into potentially lethal combat-- oftentimes actually physically being knocked unconscious or burned alive or electrocuted... but the game supposes you then can get right back on your feet and drive straight away to another fight where you have absolutely no emotional, physical or mental issue with being knocked unconscious, burned alive, poisoned, frozen, or electrocuted again. That's the hallmark of superhumans.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
It depends.

What war are we talking about? How desperate are the fighters? Are we talking WW1, WW2, Vietnam, Desert Storm, US Civil War, Napoleonic Wars, Persian battle with Greeks at Thermopylae, Roman legions, Alexander the Great, the 100 years war, the Seven Warring States of China?

In WW1 when intense firefight trench battles stretched for months on end, troops that couldn't be relieved became far less effective than those who could. Same is true of the various other ones. OTOH, there where people who did fight for extremely long periods of time without really stopping for much, even getting limited sleep.

Shell shock was used to describe the crazy PTSD soldiers got from that experience in WW1.

Soldiers with better gear and numbers have soundly lost against inferior numbers when they are exhausted enough by constant battle. Take a look at some of the seiged islands in the pacific in WW2.
These are all great points. And with most or all of these wars... I would suspect that the relentless nature of the martial and/or ballistic warfare they each dealt with was not nearly as relentless as our typical D&D game is. A game wherein you might literally spend 5 hours in-game dungeon-diving and get shot, stabbed, burned, frozen, mind controlled, fallen from a great height etc... numerous times over, one right after the other over those five hours... even possibly being knocked completely unconscious two, three, six, ten times over... and each time after just jump up like Deadpool as if nothing happened.

That's what D&D and most other media of this sort is. No realistic physical, emotional, or mental stakes in any of these fights.
 

NotAYakk

Legend
So, I'm still working on a campaign.

The idea is that "mortals" in this world can reach action hero stats of around 5th level. A 5th level fighter (well, a Knight, Veteran or the like) is a seriously competent fighter, someone whose professional job is to learn how to fight and does fighting and is innately talented at it.

At that point, they are already slightly superhuman.

The typical professional who isn't talented at it looks more like a Guard-tier.

There exists "mere mortals" beyond 5th level, but they are extraordinary, and often have a story based reason why they are better than anyone else.

Sometimes it is just "this is an elder race, whose lifespan measures centuries, and they spent those centuries getting gud". (The two main elder races -- the dwarves and elves -- have an emnity, and I'm going for a post WW1 feel, as the Elven and Human civilization beat down the bigest Dwarven civilization a generation ago; now the elves have almost all ... left (what do they know? Play and find out), and things are no longer stable). Similarly, some archmage might have an artifact of power, or have tapped the power of a demon prince, that they use to fuel themselves beyond most mortals (at what price?).

In order to pass 5th level narratively, I am adding a story based reason to the campaign. And I'm going to tie level based advancement to in-story reasons -- the players have objectives, and those objectives in the world fiction actually grant mere mortals more power.

So the Players have a hook and the PCs have a hook to follow the bait of the story. And I can see the world with a dozen or so such pieces of bait, each one of which is worth a level for the PCs. And by doing so -- by taking the bait and leveling up -- they'll justifiably (story wise) become superhumans. Swords will bounce off their flesh (as indicated by HP), they'll be able to stand toe to toe with 40' tall giants, etc.

Working title is Pantheon: Epilogue
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter

How This Applies to RPGs​

In RPGs we also can consider these two forms in relation to the player characters. Are the player characters extraordinary humans (or whatever species they may be) or are they over-the-top superheroes who can do just about anything without suffering significant harm?

The answer to that question determines the type of game you play. Extraordinary people face tougher struggles and are therefore better modeled by simulationist games. For games where the player characters are truly superhuman, I think narrative and storytelling games do a better job of modeling gameplay.

Your Turn: Which point of view do you prefer as a player? And what do you prefer when you GM?
Someone else mentioned it, but fate is able to nicely model both styles (often at the same table in the same combat even!). and is about as far as you can get from the traditional gamist/simulationist molds as you can get. While I love fate & have run a ton of it, fate has it's quirks & limitations that make it a poor fit for many styles of game while making it a great tool to leverage as a gm.

I much prefer the system to be tuned towards the mortal end of the scale as the default since it's easy to crank things up by adding some extra feats magic items or whatever & players will rarely bristle at anything that makes them more awesome. Attempting to downtune something like 5e's action hero to semi-immortal super hero scale is a much tougher task with an endless list of edge case tweaks & power reductions that players are likely to bristle at.
 

How This Applies to RPGs​

In RPGs we also can consider these two forms in relation to the player characters. Are the player characters extraordinary humans (or whatever species they may be) or are they over-the-top superheroes who can do just about anything without suffering significant harm?

The answer to that question determines the type of game you play. Extraordinary people face tougher struggles and are therefore better modeled by simulationist games. For games where the player characters are truly superhuman, I think narrative and storytelling games do a better job of modeling gameplay.
I couldn't disagree more. Power level has almost nothing to do with this. Genre/subgenre does. The characters in The Boys are frequently over the top superheroes - and those in Grey's Anatomy are not even that extraordinary humans. But a procedural sim game simply will not make a game work if what you want to play is Grey's Anatomy. While it can lead to the sort of dark bloody mindedness of The Boys.

As a general rule the sort of simulation you're talking about works where the dominant mode is either (a) exploration based or (b) PVE hacked tactical wargame. While if it's stepping into the shoes of a character fundamentally different from you narrative and story games in general do better.
Your Turn: Which point of view do you prefer as a player? And what do you prefer when you GM?
It varies. Which do I prefer? Chicken or strawberries?
 

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