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Reality Shift – Part 1

Written by Bill - Published on April 28, 2010

Achieving a feeling of realism in D&D (or any other RPG) without making a horrible mess of gameplay

Reality ShiftThe RPG world is littered with the rotting remains of vain attempts to introduce realism.  Critical hit tables, wacky initiative schemes, progressively debilitating damage charts: these are the tools of the gamer in search of a more immersive experience.  All game systems, no matter how well designed, are simply models of reality – they take artistic license with the laws of physics in order to speed up and simplify game play.  Like any model, the simplicity achieved is generally inversely proportional to the level of realism.  The simpler the game system, the harder it is to suspend disbelief (reference: all of the fiery blog posts regarding 4th ed D&D’s reduced realism).  Luckily, there’s an easy way out of this dilemma: a reality shift.

Instead of imagining our game world with the same laws of physics and nature as our own, with our game system as an imperfect approximation of those laws, why not imagine it with the game system as its actual laws of physics?  Since we’re imagining a world inhabited by magical creatures in frequent contact with a host of fictional deities, why not go one step further and change the rules of the world to match those we’re playing with?

If we do this, instead of seeing the game rules and mechanics as an unfortunate and imperfect attempt to approximate reality, we can look at them as vital links to an alternate and parallel reality that has its very own laws of physics, all of them conveniently laid out for us in a mildly overpriced book.  I call this mental exercise a “reality shift”.  While it may seem to be nothing more than semantics at first, if you think a little deeper about it, you’ll see that it’s a dramatic shift in the way we design and interact with our game worlds, leading to an experience that is significantly more immersive.

We all live in a world in which no one breathes fire without the aid very strong booze, no one can teleport (yet, fingers crossed!) and there is, sadly, just one humanoid species around to live, love and fight with (ah, if only we could get some half-elf strippers…).  We’re used to the rules that govern our universe and generally apply them unconsciously, but its basic characteristics wield profound influence on every aspect of our daily lives.  If we were to change just one or two basic rules, the results would be staggering.

Yet most D&D campaign settings ignore the impact of magic and the power of PCs and NPCs to impact the world around them.  They just paint a thin layer of magic over an otherwise conventional world, in which major and powerful characters are anomalies that, because they don’t plug directly into the fictional reality, remain on its surface.  But in a world in which the rules of the game are the rules of reality the truly earth shattering powers some characters and monsters wield have always been around and will have had major political, economic, and cultural effects.  Unless magic is new to a campaign setting, its presence will have influenced every aspect of society’s development.  The basic structure of the D&D system, with character classes, levels, experience and hit points, and specific abilities with clear prerequisites and predictable effects, will make a number of our imaginary world’s characteristics very different from this one’s.

When put that way, the notion of trying to bridge the gap between the two realities seems a little too daunting.  The possible differences are absolutely infinite.  True, our universe is one of infinite and barely understood possibilities, and that with so many potential differences, unless we do simply treat magic and the game rules as an overlay on and model of our world, we’ll get lost in endless trivia.  But if we make the simple assumption that unless otherwise dictated by the game rules, every aspect of our imaginary world is identical to our own, we can narrow our focus to simply those differences we have in front of us in print.  This also gives us a model of how to proceed with analyzing how the game world would be different: just break out your players’ hand book and look at the chapters.  Each of them describes a fundamental difference between the imaginary world we’re building and the real one that will have a significant impact.

The proliferation of humanoid “races” is the first major difference (I’ll refer to them as species, since that’s what they really are).  Since they don’t exist in our world, their verified and often commonplace presence in the imaginary one will produce some differences in the way the world works.  We need to ask ourselves what not only place each has in the world, but also how each fares in the competition for resources – why, for example, has this species managed to survive in a dangerous and competitive world?  This question is especially critical for those races not generally included in the PC races.  Since they have so many fewer classed heroes, won’t they be at a distinct disadvantage?  How could goblins, for example, possibly survive the repeated bloody beat downs they receive at the hands of every low level party of adventurers that happens along?  Each would have developed some interesting and perhaps unexpected ways of dealing with this sort of environmental pressure.

Another major category of differences comes from the existence of character classes.  These discreet groupings of individual capability would enable individuals to categorize one another to an extent not possible in our own world.  I used to resist the idea that characters would be able to tell if another character was a fighter, or a wizard, or a sorcerer, etc, and go positively out of my mind if players tried to talk to one another in character about classes, levels, and powers.  Their characters would never see things this way, I argued.  But this is a viewpoint born of treating the game system as a mere model.  If we accept it as the characters’ reality, then we can understand that character classes are the norm of their world.  A successful professional adventurer (or even an NPC retainer) would need to have the ability to determine what class another character was by observing him in action as a basic survival skill.  If he were very familiar with the class, he might even be able to determine level from the powers he observed.  This opens up a whole series of possible story telling possibilities, too: imagine the bard who masquerades as a high-level wizard, or more dangerously, the high level wizard who masquerades as a bard…

Other aspects of the game have could have major impacts as well: magic items, powers and rituals of sufficient power or utility could create whole economic systems around their provision or enable widespread empires that would be otherwise impossible and the combat and healing system would have a profound impact on its practitioners.  Each of these areas is worthy of additional in depth analysis – check back here for my future posts about how to Reality Shift your campaign!

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23 Responses to “Reality Shift – Part 1”
  1. Elderon Analas says:

    First of let me say Kudos on the Author spot Bill. Good job. Second let me go into this. I do try to incorporate some of the things you stated, like PCs and NPCs being able to tell class and mabey even level. I like the concept and it throws another bit of challenge into the mix if your fighting a dragon that can tell your level and class, this may even open up some opportunities for negotiation rater than just blatant attacking if the PCs see that the dragon is a….oh, let me think….. Level 25 Wizard, Level 15 Fighter, and a Level 10 Monk. (yes, that is my character stats, and yes, i triple class, AND YES I go over Lvl 30. I play by lower edition rules where their was no level cap.) This is a daunting task, but especially if said dragon is faced with oh, lets say a Lvl 15 Fighter, Lvl 16 Wizard, Lvl 15 Rouge, and a Lvl 13 Ranger. The dragon may think otherwise, or see that these people are strong and will certainly have alot of magical goodies and gold. But that is just something I try to toy around with, and it works fairly well.

    Your Friend,
    Elderon Analas

  2. Bill Burke says:

    Elderon,

    Thanks very much. It’s nice to get my ideas out there. Your dragon negotiation scenario is exactly what I’m going for. The idea of a creature of that age and power not knowing who’s who is a little silly. When we move past the “you see a guy, he attacks you” way of looking at things, we can get to a whole new level of play that makes the hack and slash really mean something.

    Again, thanks for the support. Just finished my last paper for my Masters, so will hopefully have more time for writing now. Watch out for Part II soon!

    Take er easy,
    Bill

  3. Elderon Analas says:

    Bill,

    Well, thank you for the kind words. It is people like you that keep me from destroying and pillaging towns on a daily basis. And that “scenario” was an actual event, that happened to me. The way I run most of my encounters it goes like “you see a dragon, it sits quietly eyein’ you over”. Well the fighter gets the bright idea to march up to it (me) and start barking demands and orders. This appalled the dragon, it skipped the pleasantries and crushed the man like a hot dog inside a tin can. The dragon quietly swiped away the body and sat back down, again just eyeing the group over. The ranger was kind enough to introduce the group and I did the same. We had a quaint little talk while I ate their friend, they didn’t mind that much, I could tell that they must not have liked him that much. But I can sense that I have been talking much to long, my apologies. I shall make this short now. I like your work, can’t wait for part 2. Hope to hear more from you, and hope it stays at this level of high quality.

    Your Scaly Friend,
    Elderon Analas

    PS. Bil do you mind if I speak in my native tongue? Tir wux shishin sjek si renthisj persvek Vs’shtak? Coi xurwkic ve lotoc ekess klae sia zarlathil xanalre.

  4. kocho says:

    this is awesome
    i’m going to try this in the next campaign i dm (first i’ll finish this one though)

  5. kocho says:

    sorry about the double post
    really can’t wait to see part 2 and a possible part 3

  6. Wayfinder says:

    4E doesn’t allow for reality, because reality is imbalancing, menacing, and coldly cruel. It doesn’t jive with WotC’s interdependency and molly-coddling motif as espoused in the DMG. Remember this is a game that doesn’t want the DM to put an encounter next to an 80′ cliff for beginning level characters because they might fall and die, and that would be “unfair,” and therefore unfun.

    Reality means someone’s going to be overtly competent at their job and someone else is going to feel either like a fifth-wheel or is going to feel sad when he rolls a low number and that trap he was trying to disarm squishes him like a bug with no rolling for damage from the DM because HP particularly counts for combat, not for defending against the ravages of instant death.

    Reality means Logistics, something else 4E has done away with altogether. Logistics, for those of you who don’t know, is the art of managing one’s available resources in order to accomplish a desired goal. I used to run games where we tracked every arrow, every ration, every MATERIAL COMPONENT for SPELLS because they were part of the game. Once we began doing that, merely going out on a quest toward a specific location became the adventure in and of itself. Without a guide who knows the general region of the area fairly well, a party might be looking for a dungeon as prominent in structure as the Eiffel Tower and miss it completely if they don’t know where they’re going. Every day not in the dungeon is another day of rations and drinkable water gone, not to mention ammunition and other resources necessary to find game if you’re trying to live off the land. Which means time lost, and time is equal to money. I have actually been on campaigns where we ended up going out on two to three forays to the same damn dungeon just because we couldn’t find it initially, either because we had no guide or the guide we hired turned out didn’t know where the heck he was going. How’s that for Reality?

    Oh, and here’s something you might not be aware of; territories! You see, some folks actually don’t like trespassers, and the owners of said places get to define what a trespasser is. I sure do love to surprise folks with an Elven ambush; the looks on the players’ faces is priceless when they find out that elves don’t like interlopers in their woods and are more than willing to murder you to make examples out of you. Just because they’re supposed to be “chaotic good” doesn’t mean they won’t kill trespassers.

    To introduce more reality in 4E, you’d have to disregard everything the DMG says to do. Might as well play something else; I suggest Savage Worlds myself, but to each his own.

  7. Bill Burke says:

    Kocho,

    Glad you like it. Hoping to get Part 2 (and then 3 through… whatever… there will be a bunch more eventually) done soon.

    Wayfinder,

    You nailed, bud. Your post is exactly the type I was referring to: I too was frustrated by a lack of reality in gaming (even tried to come up with my own more “realistic” system). But the point of Reality Shift is that we don’t need to worry about that stuff – if we take the game rules AS reality (in the parallel world we invent), then we can relax and have a better time. Plus, it gives us a way to think about the development of the game world in a much deeper way. Tune into Part 2 for a demo of what I mean.

    Bill

  8. Fishercatt says:

    You know what, this is one of the best articles I’ve ever read on the art of DMing, and I’m pretty well versed in the media. You had just enough personality to keep it interesting and not so much to make it not pertain to the audience. You addressed not only the philosophy of the concept but also initiated actionable commentary. Please write more.

  9. Bill Burke says:

    Wow, thanks Fish. Will do.

  10. Wayfinder says:

    Some senses of reality can be simulated, but a lot of it is tedious and boring. It all depends on the game you’re running and the group you’re running for.

    If you happen to be running games for a group of people who meet, say, three to five times a week (yes, they’re out there), then you might be able to afford to be as tedious as you like provided that you’re accurate and fair as possible. On the other hand, if you’re running sessions for a group once per week, then your options in this regard are limited. Most people in this case are more interested in getting on with the story than having to worry about how much food they got and whether or not their guide is on the level.

    Also, you might want to set parameters on how “real” your fantasy is. I like Conan-style games, but that’s pretty much for mature audiences. For those of you who have missed out on what Conan is all about because you were too busy playing Pokemon to care, Conan features a lot of sex, drug abuse, blood and gore, and human sacrifice. Magic is potent but costly to one’s immortal soul. That could be a bit too manly for some folks, but I find that my lady-players keep clamoring for more. If you’re not sure about how mature you ought to make your game, simply throw a rock in the water and find out; simply state that when they walk into the temple of the evil dark god, there’s an orgy going on in there. You don’t have to describe it (in fact, you don’t have to – in this case, less is more), but just say there’s an orgy of several dozen men and women in there and leave it at that, and gauge their responses.

  11. Bill Burke says:

    Wayfinder,

    I get what you’re saying now – I was wondering why you brought up that long list of god awful logistical nonsense.

    Your argument about needing limits on the level of realism we aim for is well taken – it is, in fact, the whole point of Reality Shift. The idea is to get away from all of the arrow tracking / guide hiring stuff (unless it adds to the story) and take the mental leap of using the game rules as the actual limits of the constructed reality in which our characters exist. In a semantic sense, then, the game would be 100% perfectly realistc, but that’s really not the point.

    We’ve all messed with all those clunky realism mechanisms in the past because we were trying to get a more immersive game – to get to that moment when you look around the table and say to yourself, “Holy crap, these guys are actually, physically sweating they’re so into what’s going on.” The simple mental leap of Reality Shift (coupled with the world design tips I’ll be posting in future submissions) is a short cut past worrying about how much food they brought or whether the guide is on the level.

  12. LordVreeg says:

    I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this.
    I am sure I will agree and disagree with parts of it; I believe there are rules in systems that do their best to destroy versimilitude. You can, if your system matches the type of game you want to play and your GM has enough backstory and ability, manage to create an internal consistency that passes for realism. But all the above conditions have to be met.

    I just spent time posting on a game design site about the need for a GM knowing why and how something is included in a setting. So your comments about the ecology of humanoid species is well-taken.

    But I also think that Wayfinder echoes my view about the random nature of any reality.

  13. Wayfinder says:

    I brought up Logistics for another reason.

    Let’s say you set up a hook where the players take it upon themselves to journey out to a far-flung dungeon. Let’s say that you tell them that they get lost and they use up so much food on the way that by the time they get to the dungeon, they only got a day or two that they can operate in there before they have to leave for home before they begin to starve.

    If you do that, your players are going to be angry. Why? Because unless you have always been playing the game along these lines, if you start saying that they’re hamstrung because they’re running out of food, they’re going to wonder why this never came up before. It feels like a “gotcha,” because it is even if you didn’t mean for it to be. If your players don’t consider logistical realities of traveling and adventuring and you pull that on them all of the sudden, they’re going to respond by demanding that their food and gear is tracked in order that they may maximize their chances of success.

    It doesn’t take much, and the next thing you know your party has smartly bought four mules and a wagon to carry their 1,000 arrows, two barrels of salt-pork, two barrels of fresh water, two wheels of cheese, a bushel of beans, five loaves of bread, a quarter cord of firewood, a tent, hirelings to take care and track of it all, and so on and so forth.

    But that’s realism.

    I’d say that there is something to be had for this facet of the game in and of itself. In 1E thru 3E, tracking material components for spells made wizards a bit less powerful than they otherwise would be. I often was baffled as to why people kept thinking that wizards were overpowered when you consider that they’re extremely hampered by just having to carry all this garbage. Wish is a potent spell to be sure, but you need a whole lot of money in order to cast that (and it might even take a year or so off of your life); how many characters keep 10,000 gp on them without a Bag of Hefty Capacity on hand to carry it? And, if you really think about it, 10,000gp could be put to better use. Frankly I think it’s really no wonder why wizards spend so much time in their towers; because that’s where all their stuff needed to cast spells is at.

    So it’s not entirely a bad thing. It all depends on what you want to do.

  14. Elderon Analas says:

    Ava’yorn sia thurirli vur svanoa re wux? Si siofme si geou filki stharl tenpiswo itheikir ihk sia klewar ekess renthisj lae si clax persvek shio wux tepoha renthisj. Si stharl siofme di ways ekess ukris spical zahae nomeno youwe, shar si mi molmonsore tagoa si tir ti vucot svanoa ekess ivah sia ulhyrri. Si mi lotoc ekess ocuir batobot wux munthreki clax nomeno zi vern vur batobot sjek si rinov rigluin letoclo, wux geou qe mobi. Si geou huena throdenilt stharl tenpiswo isia klewar ekess renthisj.

    If this is too complicated, or you can’t find a Draconic Linguist please tell me so I can properly speak to you all. It is just that my words feel, um, forced when i speak in common. It is not that natural to me, and it brings back fond memories when I can fully hiss out my words. But I will be happy to translate this upon any-ones request. I would just like to be able to speak my mind in the way i know best.

    Your scaly friend,
    Elderon Analas

  15. Tourq says:

    Ok Wayfinder, where do you live? Because I’m going to join your game, whatever it is.

    And, I always wanted to play Conan.

    -Tourq

  16. Photon says:

    WOW! What a really kewl concept. I so like this idea. I had been working on similar ideas before but you so congealed it into a really good and focused article. I really hope for more.

    Along this line what me and my recent group has been considering is the idea of magic items. In Pathfinder you can pretty much always detect whats magical so why even bother. We figured that in a world where magic has been around for 10 000 years plus common magic is most likely pretty standardized. A healing potion is a healing potion is a healing potion. When I look at that warrior his sword is obviously magical, just by seeing the hilt if it’s a powerful sword. Otherwise you might need to see it in action and again it would be obvious it’s magical. Basically how we were thinking of it is that take electronic devices in our own world. I don’t need any special detection ability to tell that this requires electricity. I may not know how it works but I can probable turn it on, or off. So we just thought to apply the same idea to magic items. I think this “game” reality works well.

    Again looking forward to more from you!

    Smiles

  17. Bill Burke says:

    Photon,

    Thanks very much. I really dig your electronic device analogy – it’s exactly what I’m talking about. And I definitely agree: a trained fighter should be able to tell that his opponent’s sword arm is moving a little faster than normal.

    Bill

  18. Elderon Analas says:

    I can tell none of you understand Draconic and that I will now continue to use your English, as it is the dominate language here.

    @Photon
    While your on the subject of magical swords. I have one that is quite the nuisance to all dragon kind. It has prominently named itself The Sword of Dragon Death vial thing. It is a vorpal blade set into a handle of pure dragon bone and adorned with a black diamond set into the pommel. The blade radiates a black mist and smells faintly of dragon blood and ash. It is said that the sword was forged for one purpose and one purpose only, kill dragons. It was forged by a great god of old for the great battle with the dragon god Io. It had split Io down the center, head to tail. Io two haves formed the great dragons you know today as Buhamut and Tiamat (or is it Tiamet, anyway). The battle ended soon after and the sword was lost into the material plane, its wrath still felt by dragons everywhere.

    If you ever find this sword don’t listen to its demands and lies, it will try with all its might to make you do its bidding. Destroy it at all costs, rid the world of this great weapon and do this for me, not just for me but all dragons everywhere.

    I had had a run-in with this sword and was lucky to escape with my life. I’m just glad that the fighter wielding it was only level 5.

    Your friend,
    Elderon Analas

  19. Wayfinder says:

    Tourq-

    I live in Vancouver, Washington. Currently, my group has been hooked on Dark Heresy and Savage Worlds, and we’ve been gradually converting the d20 Conan (mind you, I think it’s a good game) to Savage Worlds (which is a better game).

    And for those of you who like Savage Worlds and Star Wars, keep an eye out at http://www.savageheroes.com for a very comprehensive Star Wars conversion I’ve been working on for the past several months. It is not a conversion from Saga or d20 to Savage Worlds, but a complete reinterpretation and redux of how the Force works (more like Kung Fu than D&D style magic). Best of all – it’s FREE. My gift to the gaming community!

  20. Tourq says:

    @Wayfinder

    Vancouver, huh? Hmmm, I don’t think I’m gonna make it.

    -Tourq

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  2. […] Reality Shift – Part 1 As a creator of an RPG that has gone through many iterations over the past decade, I hope that I’ve finally hit the nail on the head with a balance between realism and game play. It’s a tough rope to walk, and Bill over at Dungeon Mastering has a great post on the topic. […]



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