Realism vs. Genre Emulation

LdB_img3Some folks are very concerned with the idea of “realism” in RPGs. The Argument for Realism goes like this: We need rules that model realistic physics, because they guarantee that the world works in a predictable way that players understand. When we have that, players can react to obstacles while immersed in their character, and the world will respond in predictable ways. They can use real world physics to puzzle out solutions to game-world problems. Without realistic mechanics, the game defaults to GMs making spot calls, and the world works differently every time, depending on the GM’s whim, leaving the players to play “mother may I.” The Argument contends that unrealistic mechanics are even worse, except when they’re modeling the supernatural, because they can break immersion as players encounter odd events.

Proponents of the Argument for Realism have occasionally used it to justify…

  • “Zero to hero” mechanics, where you start as a common pig farmer and advance to a powerful fighter or wizard;
  • Killer encounters, where the DM places monsters in the world that the PCs cannot defeat, because if they exist, the PCs should be able to encounter them at any time;
  • A “killer DM” style of play, where characters can (and will) die at any moment, often in random wandering monster encounters; and
  • Making magic relatively powerful, while everyone else must obey real world physics.

The big flaw with the Argument for Realism is that it isn’t applied uniformly. To restate the Argument for Realism in a different way: “The world should behave like the real world, except for the mechanics for explicitly supernatural things.”

Let me ask a simple question with complex implications: Why make an exception for the supernatural?

The simple answer is that science fiction/fantasy (SFF) and horror stories have fantastic elements, and we’re making games in the SFF and horror genres; so we have to include mechanics for magic. The complex answer shatters the Argument for Realism and forces us to re-forge it, like Aragorn re-forged the Sword that Was Broken: We should make an exception for every fantasy element, including magic; but also including other fantastic heroic action that’s not explicitly magical, such as Ellen Ripley’s toughness, Conan’s athleticism, Leia Organa’s leadership, and Locke Lamora’s trickery. And we should encourage those genre conventions for heroes (“outrun the explosion”) as much as villains (“…but they never found the body”).

Constant Use of Illusionism

The problem of “Realism” is that while we want the benefits of a mechanical world, nobody wants an inglorious world. But Realism, combined with the fickle nature of dice, creates quite a lot of inglorious outcomes. When the party is two encounters into an epic module, and they’re about to be slaughtered by a random wandering monster, it’s time to start fudging the dice.

Illusionism is an RPG theory term describing the inflated sense of tension created by the GM presenting a false choice. Illusionism is the act of creating the illusion of risk. A person takes a risk whenever they make a consequential decision based on incomplete information. Illusionism is when a player in an RPG believes a decision has consequences when, unbeknownst to them, it does not.

Let me demonstrate with an example situation: “You’re rushing to stop the dark ritual at the standing stones, but there’s a pack of ghouls moving toward a nearby farmhouse. Do you take the time to chase them away from the farm, or rush on toward the standing stones?” This dilemma is illusionism if, no matter what the PCs do, the GM has them arrive with mere moments to spare before the ritual is complete.

  • “Good thing you rushed on past the ghouls, because you arrived with mere moments to spare!”
  • “Because you stopped to chase off the ghouls, you arrive with mere moments to spare!”

The players can’t possibly know that it was going to come out the same either way, so it creates tension, even though their decision didn’t really have any consequences. Illusionism takes skill to pull off. When done well, it’s an easy way to add tension without doing a lot of extra prep work. When done poorly, it can rob the players of their sense of agency and it won’t achieve the tension it’s intended to.

Illusionism works at the micro-level, too. Why do you suppose the PCs win nearly every D&D battle they have?

There’s an illusion of threat, but how often does the party really lose a fight? Even if the GM doesn’t fudge any die rolls, they’re still building encounters that are designed for your party to win. That’s illusionism, too; and so is fudging die rolls: The decision not to flee from combat against the wandering monster has no consequences if the GM fudges the dice to prevent a TPK from a pointless random encounter, but rolling behind the screen, the players don’t know you’re fudging the dice, so you preserve the tension if you do it well.

It’s important to make the players feel like their characters are in real danger when, most of the time, they’re not. If there really was a 50% chance the PCs would die in every dangerous scene, the campaign wouldn’t last very long. If the players knew that they had a 99% chance to survive any given threat (and that’s probably about right for a typical RPG campaign), they wouldn’t feel a lot of tension. So you have to trick them. And that’s where the skill of illusionism comes into play.

Here’s another simple question with a complex answer: Why do we need the players to feel tension?

It’s not realism – that’s for sure! Real life doesn’t (shouldn’t) feel like we’re constantly in danger of bloody death at the hands of traps and monsters. Real medieval life was a monotony of manual labor and thralldom. When we play games like D&D, we want to emulate the genre of fantasy adventure fiction. We want our players to have characters who lead exciting, meaningful lives and take big risks to overcome great evil and fearsome monsters. That tension is fun! 

Mark Rosewater’s “Resonance”

Twenty years as a game designer gave Mark Rosewater (of Magic: the Gathering) quite a lot of insight. Recently, he started posting his “lessons learned,” and it’s very informative. Relevant to the discussion of realism is Rosewater’s concept of resonance.

“Your audience has a deep deposit of emotional equity in preexisting things. As a game designer, that’s a tool you should make use of and build upon. This lesson is that some of your tools come from the players themselves. Your audience has a huge pool of emotional equity that you can tap into if you know where to look.” – Mark Rosewater

What Rosewater is saying is that you don’t have to manipulate the situation itself to impart a sense of tension and danger to the players. Instead, you can tap into their preexisting emotional equity – the tropes and conventions of the genre that the players have internalized over years consuming TV, movies, comics, and novels. When you feed the players a genre trope, it cues the emotions associated with it.

It’s a lot simpler than it sounds. Here’s an example of how a game designer uses resonance in a fairly popular module. This example is from The Harker Intrusion, the 2015 Free RPG Day module for Night’s Black Agents from Pelgrane Press, written by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan. I had the pleasure of running this module recently, so I’ll describe the scene as it was set up in the module and the impact it had on my players:

The PCs were investigating an abandoned signal station dug into the side of the Rock of Gibraltar. According to the module (p. 27), if they didn’t deal with a particular juiced up supersoldier villain earlier, that villain shows up, locks them in with him, and turns off the lights.

Think about that. You’re in a rusty old WWII era tunnel, a vampire-blood crazed psycho just came in to kill you, and the lights just cut out. This is a classic horror trope.

It didn’t matter that, as it turns out, this particular bad guy isn’t too hard to defeat. It didn’t matter that my PCs outnumbered this guy four to one. None of that stuff matters because the resonance of “we’re locked inside with a monster and the lights just went out” is such a strong genre trope that it overwhelms all of the “realistic” situation factors. Genre emulation trumped all the “realism” factors.

I ran it exactly the way the designer intended. All I had to do was narrate it. “You hear the BANG of the exit door slamming shut. The lights go out, and you hear a voice with a cold British accent, ‘I’m afraid you know too much now for me to let you live.'”

I heard at least one “Oh, crap.” And then, “Well now we know vampires can see in the dark…”

After the initial horror moment, we started using the combat system and the players regained their super-spy confidence. Alfred Hitchcock summed up this dynamic well: “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” This is never truer than in RPGs, where, once you resort to game mechanics, you return the players to the realm of the familiar and predictable. There is no terror after initiative is rolled, only in the anticipation of it.

When it was all through, they felt relieved and quite proud of themselves for overcoming the horror. I didn’t need realism or even a strong opponent to scare them. All I had to do was evoke a classic horror trope. I didn’t have to fudge rolls or deceive the players. I just played to the genres built into Night’s Black Agents when I framed the scene, and Resonance did the heavy lifting for me.

The Argument for Genre Emulation

To me, it seems obvious that genre emulation is more honest, more powerful, and more efficient than “realism.” So in opposition to the Argument for Realism, I propose the Argument for Genre Emulation. Instead of caring so much about realism, we should care about staying true to the source material our RPGs try to invoke. The more my D&D game feels like the sword & sorcery action of Conan the Barbarian, the more I can employ the resonance of sword & sorcery fantasy tropes. The more my Night’s Black Agents game feels like a spy thriller or horror movie; the more I can draw on the tropes of those genres.

Instead of resenting when they can see behind the curtain, as they do with illusionism, players are happily complicit in their own illusions when you use genre emulation. After all, they benefit from it too! If they trust that the world works according to the rules of a specific genre, they’ll activate the genre’s tropes themselves! It’s a trade off: If the GM is willing to concede unrealistic tropes that make them awesome, they’re willing to buy into the GM’s use of tropes that resonate with their expectations for the genre.

Giving up a little realism for genre emulation is always a profitable, efficient trade-off. Done well, the players will have an even stronger sense of what to expect, too. It seems counterintuitive that less realism could lead to more verisimilitude, but it’s true.

Take a look at my first simple question: Why is it that we want the rules to be realistic except for magic? We should want the rules to match every trope in the fantasy genre, including magic powers, but also including superhuman feats of nonmagical stealth, cunning, strength, athleticism, and endurance associated with it. The more our world works like the source material it emulates, the more the players will buy in when we reference the source material to tap into their emotional equity.

Jon Lemich (@runagame) is the author of Run a Game (


  1. I agree that “genre emulation” is a better goal than “realism”, and it makes no sense to exempt “magic” from that realism. Sometimes the result is logically inconsistent. If paladins can Detect Evil in the broadest sense, why are there courts? If low level clerics can conjure food, why are there farmers? If magicians can teleport into a bedchamber and kill a nobleman at any time, why are there not guards inside?

    Arguably the “killer encounter” and “killer GM” cases are genre emulation gone wrong. A popular story trope is that Our Heroes go against a powerful threat (often with no plan), get their asses handed to them, escape, and come back with a better plan and/or plot coupon that helps them win. Throwing PCs against a threat they can’t simply beat up is perfectly valid, as long as a) the GM telegraphs that this thing is too big to beat up, b) the PCs can escape with their lives if they choose, and c) there’s at least one moderately obvious way to win through guile, strategy, or MacGuffin.

    The “killer GM” is likewise an attempt to emulate the horror movie where anyone can die at any time. (War stories have a similar trope, although usually one or two people die, usually “the kid” or an ethnic minority.) This fails when the players don’t know they’re in that kind of horror movie. It also helps if the players aren’t invested too heavily in their characters, e.g. by spending more than half an hour generating them and/or having played them over several sessions. Generally, if a PC dies it the player should decide that his character makes the ultimate sacrifice (or does something egregiously stupid). Of course, sometimes the killer GM is sometimes just a teenager with issues.

  2. You’ve linked to the Brief Primer on Dissociated Mechanics as an argument for the exclusive use of realism in game mechanics. But the Primer actually says exactly the opposite.

  3. “nobody wants an inglorious world”

    You’ve clearly never heard of any Lamentations of the Flame Princess products. Or Tomb of Horrors. Or Dwarf Fortress. :p

  4. Malcolm Edwards says:

    ‘To me, it seems obvious that genre emulation is more honest, more powerful, and more efficient than “realism.”’

    I have to disagree – what genre are you emulating? What if the other players don’t know the same genre tropes? What if the patterns of your model movies or literature don’t work for a role-playing game? What if your genre emulation produces cliches that sap all the spontaneity out of your game?

    There are many facets to realism. Firstly that everyone knows the real world and can establish baseline expectations. Just as important is that there are consistent rules, for example the magic system in your rulebook establishes an expectation that magic will work that way and not arbitrarily cheat the players because the GM decides that’s how the genre works. In this way you can communicate clearly and everyone knows how things work even if it’s not strictly like the real world. For a game, magic has to be not just consistent but it must also not overshadow other ways to approach problems so that the players actually have a choice – this is ignored in most genre fiction. Admittedly I am stretching the definition of realism, but the goal I would strive for is not to exempt everything from realism, but to make everything seem realistic.

    I also think you are also ignoring a big part of game design – gaming. A player doesn’t want to sit there waiting to see if their dice roll is good enough or for genre conventions to play out. They want to make decisions, create plans, design a character build, come up with clever tactics. You are presenting a false dichotomy of D&D encounters being “killer” because of realism or trivial because of genre emulation. D&D encounters should be winnable because the characters are smarter, more resourceful and have more agency than NPCs. Nothing is more satisfying for the players or GM than an encounter that is tough enough to destroy the party but that is overcome through clever tactics, subterfuge, using previously established resources or if all else fails fleeing.

    Genre conventions come from stories told by a single author where everything is set up perfectly and the protagonists always come up with things at the last minute. I have seem many games ruined by GMs trying the same thing – it just doesn’t work in an RPG.