Musings on the Craft of Writing

Immersive-Relevant Realism

Hi all.

So life (and writing) have kept me from writing here for a good long time, as you can see.  Anyway, I haven’t died, and I’m still hammering away at the keys.

Here I am posting an old (old) essay I wrote when I was developing my own Role Playing Game System.  It has some applicability to writing, so… here we go.

The quotes herein are from Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories.


(Part I)

“Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.” p.54

People have asked me countless times over the years of my system’s development, “why bother making a system with a strong emphasis on realism?”  Those who comprehend the issue the least will say “It’s fantasy!  Why are you even discussing “realism”?  These people believe that the phrase “realistic fantasy” is a contradiction in terms.  This comes from a misunderstanding of what we mean by ‘fantasy.’  ‘Fantasy’ here does not mean unrealistic or unreasonable, rather “different” or “alternate.”


To others more versed in current role playing trends, however, the issue is not that confused.  Various RPG creators have made systems with realism in mind.  The trend is even extending itself into computer RPGs (consumers seeking physics engines, character necessities like eating and sleeping, and psychologically “real” people).

However, a realistic system is not justifiable just for realism’s sake.  Who really cares about the minutia of average running speeds, the actual time required to reload a crossbow, or that a shield is a far better defense than mere parrying when the participants want to role play epic heroes?  Rather, it’s what (properly applied) realism facilitates that makes it worthwhile—Immersion.  A gaming world closely aligned to the real one (in relevant categories and methods) strengthens the potential relational depth between the players and their characters, and the world that those characters inhabit.

I do not assert (necessarily) that the more closely aligned the game world is to the real one the deeper the immersion.  It is not a 1:1 correlation.  It’s quite possible to have a realistic gaming world (where a wealth of research has produced perfect harmony with the facts of our world) with no deeper immersion than in a wildly uninformed one.   A world with accurate details does not by itself draw in an audience into the tale inside that world.  Only a quality tale (with mature participants allowing that tale to flourish) can generate immersion.  But even a great tale with excellent participants played within a role playing system that ignores the relevant aspects of realism diminishes the immersion that could have occurred within a realistic one.

For those interested in immersive role playing, I’d like to propose this guiding principle—Immersive-Relevant Realism (IRR):  Factually informed, logical coherence concerning elements that affect the way the participants relate to the game world, to their own characters, and to other characters.

Most participants agree that fantasy worlds would be unenjoyable if there was nothing but nonsense and chaos.  A stable, logical structure is required in order to have any coherent story.  “Fantasy worlds” are called such simply because they are not the world that we happen to inhabit, possessing different phenomena and histories than we have in ours.  Tolkien refers to them as “Secondary Worlds”.  Fantasy Secondary Worlds are Ancient/Medieval fictions—possessing elements from our mythologies and legends like magic, monsters, demonic forces, etc. that our world assumes to be absent.  But they are still logical, coherent worlds.

So, how does realism relate to immersion?  Through believability.  But isn’t belief in a Secondary World a volitional act on the part of the participants?  Yes, it is.  We are (for our purposes) “role playing” in these fictions and therefore choosing to suspend our disbelief in their “unrealness”.  The GM (traditionally) constructs a world and a tale, and we choose to psychologically “enter” it.

“What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator.’ He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true:’ it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. ”  p. 37


The less that we must strain our sensibilities (our own experiences and expectations of “life”), the easier it is to maintain the belief-link with that fiction.  Conversely, the more extravagant the setting (the further the game is from reality), the weaker our potential link to our/other characters in that world.  It’s possible to imagine any (logically possible) scenarios and actions.  But, the more exorbitant the thing imagined, the less plausible it seems to us.  Psychologically we can make leaps into ridiculous scenarios, but this requires far more effort than imagining the plausible, thus we are left fighting back disbelief from the “outside” instead of enjoying the imagined from the “inside”.

“The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.  If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed.” P. 37

Tolkien is using two categories of ‘belief’ here, natural and forced.  There is the tale that pulls us into the world, generating a genuine plausibility (as a work like Tolkien’s accomplishes).  But, there is also the poorly constructed tale which we don’t really buy, but can play along with and “force” our own belief.

It’s possible to role play in both types, even in the poorest of tales.  For example, a child approaches you and says “Let’s role play, I wanna GM you…  OK, there’s this cave, and there’s a dragon.  The dragon attacks and you kill him.”  If by “kindliness” you are placating the child and “role playing” with him, you are not naturally, smoothly suspending disbelief because of an immersive tale.  You can still instantly envision a cave and a dragon, and react as the child would like, but it is all for the sake of the child’s feelings.  To a lesser degree this is what we are doing when we role play in games that lack gritty believability.  We can “play along” believe, but this is nothing like immersionist belief.

“Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more subcreative; but at any rate it is found in practice that ‘the inner consistency of reality’ is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of ‘reality’ with more ‘sober’ material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely ‘fanciful.'” p.48


(Part II)

Creating an immersive game world requires both a great tale and a useful rules system.  A discussion of all of the things that go into creating a great tale is out of the scope of this essay.  Instead, I want to discuss what rules and methodologies are relevant to assisting in the immersion of participants to the world and characters.

Preserving Humanness

The most crucial principle that links players to created characters/worlds is our basic humanity: our needs, vulnerabilities, and limitations.  Characters (PCs or NPCs) who appear in gaming worlds that seem unreal do not compel us in the same way as real ones.  Certainly, well developed characters are essential to relational depth, but, this isn’t sufficient for RPGs with rules.  The closer a system’s rules correspond to the actual “laws” of our world the stronger our belief and therefore the greater our potential psychological connection.


A primary way of preserving that link is realistic combat rules.  This is why I use/endorse systemic combat elements such as wounds that impair/lead to death from blood loss, the disadvantage of being outnumbered, and the advantages of armour.  When comparing battle scenarios in systems that include these factors realistically vs. systems that do not, the former (by virtue of their correlation to the real world) carry a much more authentic feeling than the latter.  I.e., in reality, a warrior must be worried about being outnumbered, and must take a wound seriously when it hampers his abilities, and he knows that donning his armour can be the difference between life and death.

Regardless of how well developed the character (the depth and maturity involved in his creation and his consistency) is, if the system does not enforce physical (in this case, combative) realism then the player is somewhat more removed from the character regarding physical combat.  I know that if I get cut with a blade (even if it’s not a mortal wound), I will be hampered in other physical activities until I have healed.  This idea would weigh even more heavily upon my shoulders if I knew that I had to potentially face more foes while I was still hindered.  In an unrealistic combat system I can role play as if I am worried about those factors but I know that those aren’t real concerns.  The gap between my worries for my character and my character’s worries can be bridged by realistic combative rules.


Death is an essential element in the human equation.  Our sense of impermanence both makes us recoil from danger and drives us forward to accomplish tasks “before it’s too late”.   Thoughts of our finality can haunt us, or cause us to stop and examine our existence with grave intensity.  Allowing characters to always avoid (or even worse, simply return from) death removes a profound component from those characters that we carry.  Games with the “death punches” pulled by GMs can still be serious and have a decent level of immersion.  But when this “death-gap” is filled by allowing it to occur naturally the potential connection is significantly stronger.  Consider serious movies that allow central character to die versus ones that do not.  Take Costner’s Robin Hood versus Gibson’s Braveheart.  Both are serious movies.  Costner did have some characters die in his film, but they mostly felt like “Red Shirts” (expendable).  I knew that Robin and Maid Marion were “bullet-proof” in his movie.  While the fighting was amusing and the movie was enjoyable enough, it felt nothing like Braveheart.  For from the moment that Murron (Wallace’s wife) was brutally murdered right in front of us, I knew that I was watching something far deeper than Robin Hood.    We feel Wallace’s anguish and triumphs, and weep with and for him.  He bleeds, suffers, and dies.  Likewise, when role players know that death is a real possibility (and not just the perfunctory deaths of “Red Shirt” characters), then they can feel the (actual) mortality of those characters.  Moreover, if you allow death to be truly possible in the game, you now actually have an element that was seemingly present but actually missing—Courage.  Courage is an impossibility if there is nothing to lose.  A character who “bravely charges the beast in the dungeon” is doing nothing significant if he knows that his GM won’t let the axe of death fall.  GMs can set up other goals to compel the PCs to win battles (making the price of losing a fight the failure of some goal) but this will always pale in comparison to the ultimate loss.


An even more difficult and serious task exists for maintaining humanness with the use of magic.  For when mages become so powerful that they move towards a godlike state, they become hard to relate to in a meaningful (human) fashion.  What’s worse is that in the goal of maintaining systemic balance among character types (or “classes”) non-magic using characters must be “beefed up” in order to make the rules fair—thus an unbalancing domino-effect is created in the system which pulls each character farther from being “normal”.

Power-gaming and Restraint

Obviously, IRR forbids power-gaming, which is antithetical to immersive role playing.  A believable world has no room for wild caricatures of pseudo-dark age beefcake warlords and godling wizards conquering the world (and bar maids) without breaking a sweat, adored and worshipped by the drooling masses, and feared by all.  This is comical and (in its own right) entertaining, but it lacks the rich depth of a world filled with believable people.

Restraint is a powerful tool for maintaining our feeling of connectedness and intimacy.  Warriors can still be lethal, and characters that have magic can become extremely powerful (and frightening).  However, the strength they have is of a wholly different sort than what is produced in power gaming scenarios.  No warrior should single-handedly defeat droves of enemies unscathed, and no magic user should cast spells that are like small nuclear explosions, or give life to the fallen, or summon heavenly beings.  The power characters should have is still great, but in proportion to a world that is closer to our own than the more frequently used extravagant ones.  While consistently improving, characters should never become so strong that they are supermen & need to be “retired.”  Restraint allows for much more enjoyment than the no-holds-barred mentality of most games.  More is, in fact, less.

Using an RPG with realism as a central feature is worth one’s time for this end.  Many systems (even if unintentionally) seem to lean towards power-gaming.  While it is true that participants (by simple moderation) can avoid the worst of power gaming within any system, many systems themselves make it extremely difficult to maintain playable restraint.  The very structures of the systems (the specific spells, abilities, scenarios, monsters, etc.) are power-gamish.  For characters to survive under those rules, it is assumed that they must end up with outlandish skills and power.  Pulling at the loose threads in these systems to try to remove power-gaming elements may lead to their eventual unraveling.

Cause and Effect

Using honest Cause and Effect is also important.  Knowing that what we do affects our future (either in the next 5 minutes or years) makes us more considerate of our actions (unless we’re just reckless).  Role playing campaigns that set up non-linear “adventures” here and there do not allow for the continuity in Space-Time that we as players have.  And scenarios where characters combat their adversaries with Cause and Effect in mind are much richer than the old “module” paradigm we used as children.  Enemies who must function by real means, and having players interfere with those schemes causally is far richer than a static “room 26a has four brigands inside”.  Why were those four in that room at that moment?  What the hell are they doing in there?  How are they getting food?  What motivates them to be part of the (evil?) scheme that the players oppose?

Psychology and People

A strong focus on the psychological/sociological states of people/civilizations is a crucial factor of IRR.  The behavior of people must be plausible for the participants to relate to them significantly.  A person’s desires, fears, strengths and weaknesses must appear authentic to create the potential for a relationship to that person. Stereotypical caricatures do nothing to generate empathy with a character.  It’s possible for shallow characters to be likable and humorous, but not to be encountered with the same seriousness as sound, genuine ones.  One-dimensional “good guy”/”bad guy” characters are trite (in literature or gaming) and should be avoided.

In Closing

Thorough contemplation, planning, and corrective analysis are needed to develop the more robust stories and worlds, but we need not be walking encyclopedias in order to use IRR.  There are many areas where informed rules do not necessarily aid immersion.  Precise knowledge of weather patterns, for example, may be interesting to some, but doesn’t have nearly as strong an impact on players when compared to the more person-centered issues.  Some knowledge is mere trivia, like knowing that a ranger values a bird’s nest to start a campfire (which I learned from an actual scout).  And while some participants are thrilled by tidbits like these, the trivia is actually peripheral to the goal at hand—using the proper amount of realism to aid the players’ psychological bond to the game world.

The balance between detailed realism and expedient playability must be maintained.  There are those who desire a deeper (more psychologically connected) game, but fear the expedience-threatening effect of realism.  As with all things, your desire must be matched by willingness to accept new ideas and to change accordingly.  If that is the case, then making these types of changes gradually is the best course.

For my friends role playing has always been about experiencing great fantasy literature in the game.  Using this paradigm of realism for immersion’s sake is an endeavor that has produced rich, compelling role playing with our group for years.


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