Game Design Lessons #2: Realism vs Fantasy

07 Jun Game Design Lessons #2: Realism vs Fantasy

Realism vs Fantasy - Immersion RPGWhat’s better in an RPG – Realism or Fantasy?

I began my RPG life on a diet of AD&D, Rifts and D&D 3.5, among others. It was a heady mix of high-fantasy, crazy magi, impossible worlds, dizzying weirdnesses and brutal baddies. Whilst in AD&D I found the magic level was actually quite “realistic” and low, in the later editions and in the bevy of other games that I played, I found the fantasy element rapidly went zany and really, really high.

That was fine by me. Heck, once I’d learnt the ropes I was the one who ran those zany games with their bizarre magic items crammed into glittering chests bursting with gold and gems (and the occasional cursed item). It was a slight Monty-Hall most of the time, but with sufficient high-level brutality that most characters couldn’t become too powerful.

But in the end, with levels going up and up, everyone became pretty much untouchable.

I became disillusioned with glittering High Fantasy.

The Death of Fantasy

Thus, when I first started developing Immersion RPG, I killed almost all the magic.

I also killed all the over-the-top heroism and fantasy and all the pointy-eared races too, just for good measure. I was reading some epically brutal fantasy and historical fiction books over the period (A Song of Ice and Fire comes to mind), and I decided that fantasy just wasn’t doing it for me. It seemed too cardboardy, too pale and cartoonish. I wanted vivid reality. I wanted the weapons to hurt and bring some fear back to the gaming table.

Funny enough, the first true game setting I made was Infected!which was an unremittingly dark story of the world being destroyed by a Zombocalypse. Fast, smart zombies, total societal collapse. How it would be. Brutality. Cannibalism. A battle between your inner humanity on one side, and raw hunger and terror on the other.

Characters died in that game. Or were crippled and broken, barely able to heal, over months in the game. This was reality-based healing after all! You break your ankle and you can barely move, you’re weak as anything, and good luck getting it healed whilst you’re running screaming from a pack of Infected!

But you know…I started to want something more.

So I began creating our Myths of Khoralla setting. But, again, there was very little actual “fantasy” in it. Magi were few and far between, powers were relatively limited, HP was very low, and most of the time the battle came down to brutal combats between fierce warriors.

And still…I wanted something more. Gee these games were fun and intense, but they could only go so far before we looked towards the next horizon.

And then the magic started creeping back in again.

The Return of Monsters!

The first thing that returned were the monsters. And they were nasty. There were never any “nice” races in my book. Only things that wanted to eat you. And they got bigger and nastier. This added a lot more spice to the games. Whilst still realistic and vivid, they now had a greater dimension than before.

But I noticed something else then too. With player characters facing such crazy opponents, how were they supposed to win? Let’s face it, a mere mortal against a giant is going to get killed nine times out of ten!

Still, the players would win, thanks to their powers and their crazy dice rolling. But they became far, far more cautious. When everything’s out there to kill you, you start taking precautions.

Cautious is okay for a while, but eventually it gets boring.

It was time to spice things up some more.

Time for Heroes

Little by little, magic items made more of a reappearance. Slowly, ever so slowly, player characters got more HP, more Powers, more awesomeness.

Suddenly, they weren’t in such immediate threat. Though life was still pretty dangerous, they started to feel awesome in their own abilities. And they started taking risks again, being confident – being heroic. 

Of course, that definition of heroism I use pretty loosely. Because they’re not always strictly-speaking good. They might be bad or downright ugly! But the point was that they could become pretty awesome.

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I mean literally, they inspired awe amongst the NPC’s. They were seriously cool. Disappearing into shadows only to reappear and knife a dude. Immolating a screaming pack of gibbering creatures and leaving nothing more than ash. Channeling the force of the winds to leap down a cliff wall and land unscathed.

So cool.

Heck, they could still be killed by a pack of goblins or a horde of angry peasants. So could anyone. But if they were smart, they might just give that horde a nasty drubbing! It’s a matter of comparative awesomeness.

When they’re way better than any normal tough-guy, they feel pretty awesome. But when the world is still a really brutal and harsh place, and when they don’t have masses of Hit Points to fall back on, then that makes it just that much more vivid.

Now the horizons really opened up.

Limitless vistas.

Fantasy and reality.

So in conclusion, what I take from this whole process is that fantasy and reality are not mutually exclusive. It’s all in the way it’s delivered. We’re now going down the path of High Fantasy, and it’s incredibly fun, but in a different way to everything I had played before.

Of course, if you like harsh reality, then that’s cool too! Sometimes the game is meant to be played that way.  And for you hard-core peeps, take a look at Infected. It’ll be released pretty soon!

On the other hand, if you like having masses of HP and playing that way, then good for you too. There’s no right or wrong way in any of this really – it’s just what you and your gamers find to be the most fun and immersive experience for you!

But for me, I like to have my cake and eat it too. Realistic fantasy.

Hell yes. 

Suspension of Disbelief

In the end, what this comes down to for me is the suspension of disbelief for the players (and heck, for the GM too). Does it seem truly possible to them? Obviously for each person that’s going to vary, depending on their experiences and knowledge.

But I’m not thinking to nit-pick and get overly detailed. No way! It all comes down to story in the end. But storytelling and world building are all about that suspension of disbelief. And one way this can take effect is when the objects in the world seem pretty solid, just as they are in real life. If someone were to pick up a chair leg and whack me with it I know it would hurt like hell! Similarly, in the game there should be a similar sort of effect (rather than it just being a mild irritation). Then again, in real life if you were in full armour that chair leg would probably do very little. And again, that should to some degree be reflected.

It’s about making the world seem real, without sacrificing playability!

It’s about suspending the disbelief of the players.

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Oliver R. Shead


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