Realistic, Cinematic, Believable: Believabiity as Rule Zero (Part 1)

I was going to post this one today. But after 36 hours traveling and very little sleep, I realized that I had it wrong. At length.

I’ll be revisiting this, most definitely. But I will say this:

I was going to set up “believable” as an overall goal that people who clamor for “realism” actually want.

After thinking about this a lot, I don’t think it’s true

I think believablility is a bit like “rule zero,” which can vary in expression, but is basically what I’m getting at here. Playing RPGs is supposed to be fun. (What I refer to as the Wendler-Dell’Orto Rule of Awesome is a corollary to Rule Zero: To enhance fun, be Awesome.

So, “realistic” isn’t really properly substituted by “believable,” as I originally was going to write. You can have perfectly believable games that are, nonetheless, over-the-top if the consequences of what happens are self-consistent and well explained by in-game or metagame logic.

I think what I realized in contemplating believability is this: If the game and situation is not believable, you probably aren’t going to be playing for very long, if at all. Rules arguments, boredom – all can be consequences of unbelievable games.

As an example: I played in a DnD 3ed game in grad school. My archer (1st level) was shooting at a bad guy. I hit, but didn’t do enough damage to kill him. Bad guy was able to cross what seemed to me to be a ludicrous amount of terrain on his turn, hit me, and kill me. Boom, dead.

I had a real problem with that. My character just stood there for probably six seconds while this guy, arrow sticking out of him and all, closed the distance and put an end to me.

Now, there are probably many things I did wrong. At the time, I was still a GURPS and WEG Star Wars guy (now I’m like 90% GURPS, 10% Pathfinder, but only as a player). So there are probably things I could have done to make that not happen. Maybe shoot and then move backwards.

But it just seemed unbelievable, and thus not fun, and really not Awesome. I didn’t play DnD again for years.

I suspect many game-digressions where rules and outcomes are in dispute can be put down to believability-clash – also known as expectations mismatch. This isn’t always willing in-game immersion. It can be “you’re disrupting my solo-narrative with shared-narrative” too.

But I digress. For now, I’ll leave realistic and cinematic and what axes they’re on to another time.

But for the moment: a game that wants to be successful, and sufficiently immersive to be definitely fun and potentially awesome had better be believable.

10 thoughts on “Realistic, Cinematic, Believable: Believabiity as Rule Zero (Part 1)

  1. Over on Google+, someone said that the phrase I was looking for rather than "believability" was "plausible verisimilitude."

    "Reasonably/probably giving the appearance of truth, regardless of whether it's actually true."

    Not bad at all.

    1. I think that PV (for sake of brevity) is a standard goal of any game designer. Where you run into problems is that every individual has a different set of criteria that will break PV for them. Usually it comes down to what level of abstraction one is willing to accept.

      I (and I suspect most folks who gravitate towards GURPS) have a pretty low threshold for violation of PV. Classes and Levels are enough to turn me right off of a system. A Wealth statistic in place of an actual money system is another. Long-period rounds that lead to abstract combat and a "net result" style of mechanics is another. But others are perfectly fine with a system that glosses over those sorts of things.

  2. Honest, I blame the GM for that experience, because he either made the encounter too difficult for a 1st character (who can only take a hit or two as is) or forgot the 1st rule of Jeromy – Players need to have fun. Killing players unless in a horror game isn't fun (a few exceptions to this rule but that's a post in of itself. He could have pulled the punch (because GMs should never roll in front of players – Rule #2) or even if your character was dropped below 0 HP, never gave another character a chance to stabilize or heal you.

    Horrible dice rolling algorithms – harder problem to solve. Half tempted to mail you a twenty side die – got plenty to spare.

  3. I now have two 20-siders riding shotgun on my desk, just for your game. 🙂

    From an in-game perspective, I'm with you. From a game design perspective, I THINK this is what Attacks of Opportunity might be used for, maybe (I need to finish reading the Pathfinder rules). It seems to me that this is the sort of thing where if you didn't use up your move, you should be able to either attack the incoming guy, or flee (maybe half-move b/c you're going backwards). In either case, it was the helplessness of the game design that was incongruous and frustrating.

    1. In FASA Doctor Who (1985), you would have been fine in that situation as long as you'd saved back some Action Points to react. If you had fired your weapon as a ranged attack, you would have still been potential dog meat. (Those are ten second turns.) I guess the believability factor in this game comes down to how far the bad guy could move and still melee attack.

    2. Again, it comes down to abstraction in this case. 3e D&D rounds are 6 seconds long. So your single shot and reload happened "at the same time" as your opponent was closing the distance and attacking you. The game fails to pass verisimilitude by not feeling like a realistic outcome in no small part because it was an unrealistic outcome.

      Nevermind the fact that your armor was an all-or-nothing protection against the attacker, and that had you just been a little more experienced with adventuring, you'd have been able to survive the attack entirely, and perhaps many more, before you succumbed.

    3. I don't want to minimize player inexperience with the system, either. My biggest issue was that it was so SUDDEN. And inevitable. Because of the no-defensive-action design philosophy of DnD (you can declare defensive fighting for +2 AC and -4 to hit in Pathfinder, but much like GURPS' All-Out Defense, you have to declare it on your own turn) once the situation presented itself, it was too late for me to do anything about it, like Parry, Dodge, Block, or Run Away.

  4. As a new GURPS player, I think of the rules as "sensible" (mostly) and "consistent" (in the sense that it is pretty much a uniform mechanic). It does create fiddly stuff to track and compute, but Pathfinder also has lots of fiddly stuff to track and compute and the results can be tactically unappealing in Pathfinder. If I want to play D20, I prefer to just skip all the fiddly stuff and play Swords & Wizardry (or something like it) as there is no attempt at realism.

    BTW, how do I explain GURPS fever to my wife?

    1. Ha ha ha. I play music in a couple of bands so that won't cut it…the cowbell line has come up more than once. Actually, I used my New Year's Eve gig money to buy a bunch of GURPS stuff. When I can use one expensive, time-consuming activity to pay for another, it is a win-win (or at least not a lose-lose).

      Actually, my wife is a very tolerant soul and is supportive of all of my quirks. Plus, it is hard to say no to something named "GURP."

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