Realistic, Believable, Cinematic: Orthogonal basis set of fun

Every now and then people talk. Usually on game forums. And they say things like:

“Oh, yes. I like my flying dragons that eat starships and crap magical poop to be realistic.”

My thoughts on that were similar to how Bill Stoddard replied when someone commented that an increase in Basic Speed granted by a magical Familiar would be perfectly realistic:

“Familiars that grant powers are not realistic in any case, no matter what the powers are'”

Exactly.

But as noted in a previous post, believability isn’t really an axis of gaming. If something is un-believable, likely the game grinds to a halt. Can you have something that’s believable but unrealistic?

Of course.

Example time:

A human NPC gets shot in the chest with a .50 caliber machine gun bullet (a .50 BMG, for those keeping score at home. This is Gaming Ballistic, after all). This person dies. Messily. Realistic, right? OK. Believable? Totally.

Captain America is said to have the strength of ten men, or be the peak of human ability. Depends on the source you go for; comics are notoriously inconsistent with such. Can probably squat or press 800-1000 lbs, since that’s a world-record. If he’s truly super-human, with the strength of 10, maybe he can even squat something like 1500-2000lbs. OK, great. Now stuff all that strength into a 115-lb girl. Call her Buffy. She’s got at least a 10-1 strength to weight rato . . . how fast do you think she can run? How high can she jump? I’d bet on the order of 10-20 feet in the air (1). Straight up. That’s . . . not realistic.

But it’s believable. Or, in the language suggested by a commenter, it has plausible verisimilitude. It plausibly gives the appearance of truth.


I think the language people use to communicate about the topic – sometimes including my own – gets pretty muddled. So for the purposes of discussion, to wrap my own mind around the issue, and to set the tone for future posts on the issue, here’s my own way of looking at things. This assumes most people either want or require believability in a game, as per my previous post.


That’s really what makes stories sing. Not necessarily realism, since so much of gaming is beneficial and/or entertaining escapism/fantasy. But a level of action-reaction that conforms with the expectations of what should happen given the situation involved.

So is the opposite of realistic, then, cinematic gaming? That often seems to be how things are expressed.

But I don’t think that really works.

I think the harsh end of this particular (un-named) axis is probably gritty.  The other is likely something like heroic. And those two descriptors are really both talking about consequences. If I can get my statistics on for a moment: it’s about where in the probability distribution of (potentially plausible) outcomes our event lands.

A gritty tale has the outcomes be from the “normal” outcome of an event to “pretty damn harsh” along the consequences scale. The guys getting riddled with bullets on Utah Beach? Charging a machine gun nest, and getting taken out, as the expected outcome? That’s gritty.

Now, surely you can’t have realistic and heroic, right?

Of course you can. Out of respect for the man, I reproduce in full the following:

Second Lieutenant Audie L. Murphy, 01692509, 15th Infantry, Army of the United States, on 26 January 1945, near Holtzwihr, France, commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. Lieutenant Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to a prepared position in a woods while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him to his right one of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. Lieutenant Murphy continued to direct artillery fire which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, Lieutenant Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer which was in danger of blowing up any instant and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to the German fire from three sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate Lieutenant Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad which was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound but ignored it and continued the single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he personally killed or wounded about 50. Lieutenant Murphy’s indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy’s objective.

It’s very heroic; the Medal of Honor citations are pretty much the definition of military heroism (there are lots of other kinds, of course). It’s also cinematic. I know this, because they made a movie out of it.

So Major Murphy (his rank when he retired) did realistic things, as a real man, and had an outcome of which stories are told, and movies are made. I think it’s the outcome of the various axes that wind up being described as cinematic.

What’s the point? Most fantasy roleplaying thus lies in the realm of believable storytelling with cinematic results. Even the stuff with funky powers, or men dressed up as a bat. But you can wind up with a cinematic tale even with gritty outcome expectations, based in the real-world.

So, is realism not an issue? Of course it is. Some don’t want a game with funky powers or dimension-hopping in the multiverse or fire-farting dragons, who may or may not eat spaceships. I think another axis other than gritty-heroic is something like mundane – fantastical. This is the realism axis.


Realism is more or less the probability you can find a given person, place, thing, or action in the world as we know it today, or as we can potentially project with what we know. As the probability of finding invented (unreal?) plot elements in the game world goes up, the setting becomes more fantasticial. You could pick another word. Exotic might do.

I don’t want to get into fantasy vs. science fiction discussions here. Most FTL travel is “fantastical” in that it doesn’t conform to what we know, though it’s probably less fantastical than some other fictional conceits like magic, since there are at least people, often serious people, talking about warp drives. I always thought Stutterwarp, that is, macroscopic quantum tunneling from the old 2300AD game, was a clever justification for FTL travel that allowed people to believe (!) in the technology.

I think it’s perfectly plausible to have a fantastical game that is also gritty. If you made healing harder in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, so that the consequences of getting hit with that 3d+8 (2) cut weapon were pretty instantly and uniformly grisly, you could have a game that is described as both fantastical and gritty. The high point values would provide pretty cinematic action, but much like a George R. R. Martin novel, no one is truly safe.

Note that neither of these two axes really touch on the capabilities of the characters themselves. Low point value characters (in GURPS) are not automatically gritty and mundane (though it’s going to be easier). High point value characters, to a certain point, are not automatically fantastical. Navy SEALS and billionaires and professional athletes are likely pretty high point-value realistic characters.

That means we have a third axis – capabilities, which could be a low-medium/average-high scale, but it can also be some level of breadth as well. You can have relatively low point value characters that are very, very capable in one particular area. The oft-repeated warning about not assuming that a 50-point NPC is a mook (you can have ST 12, HT 11, and Guns (Rifle) -15 on 50 points; this will be a one-dimensional but credible threat if armed with any number of TL7+ weapons). The higher the GURPS point total, the higher the skill levels can be. As the total gets still higher, you can either go for breadth (either through more skills, or stat increases) or start picking out Advantages that enhance capabilities or mitigate potential penalties in circumstances (like Catfall for balance, Weapon Master for Rapid Strikes and damage, Combat Reflexes for surprise and defense).

GURPS’ character generation is large and varied. “First depth, then breadth” is one way to go about it, but there are infinite other choices. However, with a large enough point total, you almost get to stop choosing. The Black Ops templates, when I converted them for Fourth Edition, were about 1,000 points, and made use of some newly invented (at the time; this was years ago) wildcard skills too. There’s a basic capability with nearly everything for every op; there are merely some areas in which they are awesome.

Wrapping this up, I’ve picked out three axes to describe a game. I’m sure there are other ways to look at it, though:

1) Background reality: From mundane to fantastic
2) Character capability: In the broadest sense, from a barely specialized focus in a few skills and mostly average stats, to a broadly competent (or super-competent) polymath with loads in stats, advantages, and skills
3) Consequences of risk-taking: from gritty (mistakes are costly and likely permanent; high-risk activity tends to focus on the cost of failure) to heroic (outcomes of high-risk behavior tends to be success-focused, and the game usually has metagame mechanisms to enforce this, like Luck or Destiny Points).

It’s very possible (check out Sean Punch’s weekly GURPS game, The Company) to run a game that’s mundane, with broadly competent characters, but that’s also gritty. The outcomes are highly cinematic (movie-worthy!) stories, but believable, since the stories posit what would happen if you could get a group of special-ops or higher level of characters, trained exquisitely in real-world skills with real-world equipment, carrying out dangerous missions.

The trick, I think, about having discussions about “realistic” versus “cinematic” gaming – and why people fight about it – is that realistic-cinematic really isn’t a good axis. Realism is one aspect of a gameworld description; cinematic is the outcome of the stories. But there’s much more to it, and it’s easy to talk past each other.

(1) Showing my work. Call it 1750 pounds of force, exerted over maybe 1.5 feet. Buffy probably weighs in at 100-120 pounds, tops. Energetically, Force x distance = Weight x height, so that’s about 24 feet, straight up. 1000 pounds over a one foot range exerted on a 100-lb. girl gives you about a 10-foot vertical leap. Karch and Eric? Bite me.

7 thoughts on “Realistic, Believable, Cinematic: Orthogonal basis set of fun

  1. Personally, I believe that there's another axis, that plays into what people call realism: consistency. That is, do things follow their logical outcomes?. Low consistency gives you Toon. True to it's source material, Toon is not consistent.

    People often mistake realism for consistency, and as GURPS is mostly consistent, call GURPS realistic. That's why you often get people to call X or Y fantasy setting realistic.

    People often also mistake low consistency with cinematism. Just because happen "because of the plot" in many media materials, it does not mean that low consistency is equivalent to cinematism.

    I realize that the Gritty-Heroic axis sort of falls into this consistency axis, but only on the surface. You can have low consistency high grit movies. In fact, a non-uniform application of the Gritty-Heroic axis is often the mark of highly cinematic action!

    1. I dont think that absrtaction is, of a necessity, unrealistic. it is of a necessity less specific, but using the axes I have described, realism's opposite pole is fantastic. Abstraction isnt really on that axis, and I think you can have a ruleset where the results are absrtact that is plausible, realistic, gritty.

  2. I think both Kuroshima and Jack have great points. I'm not going to claim one-true-wayism here. I think consistency is part of believability, and most games drive for consistency. When you toss this aside (as in Toon) you create a different set of expectations. this can be fun, so long as buy-in is achieved!

    For abstraction, I'll have to think about it. That's maybe rules driven discussion, since you can probably have a realistic, gritty, but abstract game. You don't need to know how fast your pancreas spatters to know that, in the abstract, you just got hit with a bullet or sword and are now dead. 🙂

    1. Too low consistency leads to disbelief suspenders catastrophic failure. However, you can easily set it within a reasonable margin without straining them. Want an example of low consistency? Check your own example, Buffy, where some characters get more or less powerful "because of the plot". In fact any long running series (movie, TV, book, comic, etc etc) will have big consistency problems, specially if they change directors or scenario writers.

      Again, if the consistency is consistently variable (meaning that characters who are X live in a gritty world, but characters who instead have Y live in a highly heroic world) it will not stretch disbelief suspenders as long as all the characters have either X or Y.

    2. I also think that it starts to strain suspension of disbelief when the level of abstraction wobbles around from situation to situation. If you're using a system that abstracts "combat actions" to be a period of six seconds, then you have to make sure that all of your rules follow that notion, to avoid the situations where one action takes a fraction of that time in real life, but uses up the whole "action" in the game, either because of a lack of real nuanced understanding by the developer, or due to game balance issues.

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