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Reality vs. Genre

Posted By Kurt "Telas" Schneider On July 24, 2012 @ 5:00 am In GMing Advice | 27 Comments

Have you ever had your knowledge of reality interfere with your acceptance of genre conventions?

Gamers are usually pretty nerdy, and tend to know quite a bit about gamer-ish topics, sometimes down to a very granular level. RPGs usually emulate genres better than they emulate reality. A GM’s detailed knowledge of reality can conflict with a game that is based on a genre that may only barely resemble reality.

Take the Katana (please!)

In reality, the katana was the best sword that could be made on an isolated and very iron-poor island nation. Its manufacture used many labor-intensive techniques to create a weapon that was both flexible and sharp, and that worked well against the reinforced lacquered leather armor of the day. It was nothing extraordinary, being roughly comparable to many of the swords of its time period, and performs rather poorly against metal armors.

HattoriHanzoIn fiction, however, the katana takes on nearly supernatural powers. It can cut through chainmail like butter, plate mail like paper, and grant a +2 Charisma bonus to its wielder. Reliable sources say that it can cut through a tank. The biggest testament to its awesomeness is the fact that the katana is the preferred melee weapon of most 1980s action stars.

What are your genre conventions?

So, is a katana just another bastard sword, or is it the melee version of a tactical nuke? It depends on the genre and conventions that your game is based on.

  • Are you running an over-the-top, pulpy game? Then katanas are awesome, and every character in your game will want one. Be prepared to deliver them, or give a good reason why you can’t.
  • Are you running a gritty and harsh ‘realistic’ game? Then it’s just another sword. That one player (you know the one) will still insist it’s better, so prepare your arguments accordingly.
  • Maybe you’ve got a satiric game that makes fun of certain genres? Then it’s just another piece of junk that will break on impact. Have lots fun with this one.

This is all good fun, but the point is that you should define the genre and conventions for your game. Do chandeliers support characters? Does body armor take minutes or seconds to don/doff? Make sure everyone at the table knows what the genre implies, and that the rules encourage gameplay that emulates the genre.

When a situation or question arises, resist the urge to answer based on reality. Try to go to the source material first. Picture the scene in a movie or book of the appropriate genre, and imagine how it would play out. I used the katana, but other examples include how injuries and healing work, the effects of combat on the human psyche, computer hacking, etc.

Have you stumbled over the conflict between reality and genre? Got any advice or stories about it? Sound off in the comments and let us know!

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."




27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "Reality vs. Genre"

#1 Comment By Tony Elfson On July 24, 2012 @ 12:32 am

Nail on Head. Not only do you pick one of my favorite examples, I’ve had this exact issue in many games across numerous systems and players.
Without attempting to go into too much detail, I have often made edits to system rules for various things that I feel myself and my players feel we have a certain grasp of knowledge on, to fit the genre we wish to play or mood of the game.
Specifically, I have worked at a blade store for several years now and most of my gaming groups have gained second hand knowledge (if they’re not my co-workers, in which case, first hand training) of various steels and processes. AND THAT’S JUST WEAPONS!
One GM I had actually enacted a “Mastercraft” and “Master Piece” tier to our 3.5 D&D game to represent non-magical artistry as we felt there were many tiers of quality “a mundane mortal with great skill” could produce.
I’ve even used “wall hangers” in some of my modern games (World of Darkness) to hilarious effect.
I will be forwarding this post to other gaming friends, Thanks!

#2 Comment By shortymonster On July 24, 2012 @ 3:11 am

Warbows versus crossbows for me. I did my history degree as a medievalist and could wax lyrical for hours on the various merits and drawbacks of both weapons. I do in fact have a blog draft about how to get the best use out of a warbow from a purely historical context – no fantasy stuff involved.

And of course I’ve had fun recently with running an Only War play test. Imperial Guardsmen in the Warhammer 40k universe. great fun, but the reality of being only humans – no matter how well trained – with the games most bog standard of equipment, really made the players realise that they were about as far as they could get from being heroes. Still, a damned fun game. http://shortymonster.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/eleventh-hour-an-only-war-play-test/

#3 Comment By Trace On July 24, 2012 @ 8:02 am

I actually run into this more a a player than I do as GM. I’m former military, like I assume a large section of gamers are, and due to my MOS (I was a Combat Engineer) I know more about guns, explosives, and other military tech than most people I game with. So it bugs me when they give a shotgun and a rifle the same stats.

But, I had a buddy who ran an “Expendables” campaign. We started off with the understanding that this was “action movie” military hardware, not real military hardware. With that mindset pre-established, we rock n’ rolled through the campaign and had a blast.

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On July 24, 2012 @ 8:45 am

The Katana, mythical super weapon that in reality was intended as a first strike weapon. If you missed that first disemboweling cut (and were fortunate enough to avoid the one the other guy was aiming at your breakfast) you’d discover how unsuited the weapon was to fencing. I’m told by knowledgeable people that the back of the blade is particularly vulnerable to damage, so no sword-on-sword action should be attempted if you value that antique.

But the sword does contain a valuable lesson: That humans discover stuff by experience. You have only pig iron in small billets so you must hammer it long and hard to make it sword-shaped, folding it so you don’t end up with the world’s largest shuriken. Doing this results in the layers of progressively more carbonized (the iron takes up carbon from the coals in the forge) metal to give the flexible iron core and hard outer steel that makes for a good blade. Once the basic form is arrived at, trial and error give the best times for heating each stage.

Now take a long look at the Egyptian pyramids, from the earliest to the last, to see the same process at work. Aliens need not apply.

Which also goes to show the wide field of speculation and thought a good Gnome Stew article can generate.

My most recent case of reality vs genre was when one player wanted to throw a 52-gallon barrel of salt some fifty plus feet – by hand. Even then the player – whose character is particularly slight and diminutive in stature I might add – whinged and whined about “shopping list challenges” (which this particular puzzle unashamedly is and the rewards are commensurate with the trouble had getting to them, game-changing in nature). Oh well.

I let them do the job one shovelful at a time but wish now that I had simply stuck to my guns and had them chance being eaten by The Monster. I was tempted to drive the player to my house where I have an empty barrel of the proper size and challenge him to lift it, let alone throw it.

#5 Comment By shawnhcorey On July 24, 2012 @ 9:13 am

Horses are my pet peeve. Genres treat them like slow-moving motorcycles: get on them, ride them all day, give them a bit of hay and they’re good for another 12 hours. Then add all the problems with mules, donkeys, and zebras (no, a zebra is not a horse with stripes), sometimes it’s enough to just scream.

#6 Comment By Razjah On July 24, 2012 @ 9:56 am

I had a guy want to play a knife thrower in a pirates game. I didn’t think it was bad until he was carrying a bandoleer of knives and throwing them all over when the party was reloading black powder weapons, then they didn’t want guns anymore.

I never seemed to be able to proper explain the shoot and then close or close and shoot the guy point blank while you stab another guy genre to them. They also never swung on ropes.

#7 Comment By Razjah On July 24, 2012 @ 9:57 am

They also make mounted combat nearly impractical. It was very practical- hence cavalry for thousands of years.

#8 Comment By 77IM On July 24, 2012 @ 1:53 pm

“Have you stumbled over the conflict between reality and genre?”

Only in every single on-line rules discussion ever! It annoys the crap out of me when somebody plays the “realism” card. Realism can be fun, but it can also suck hard; even the most realistic of RPGs must make a few concessions to playability and satisfying narrative.

Saying a rule is/isn’t realistic is especially unhelpful when discussing an unrealistic genre. I wish in people would replace the word “realism” with “genre conventions” and “realistic” with “genre appropriate” before commenting on such matters.

#9 Comment By Gamerprinter On July 25, 2012 @ 10:44 am

This is one my main reasons for designing my Kaidan: a Japanese Ghost Story setting for PFRPG (Kickstarter project active on this…). Most oriental settings for the major RPGs over the last 30 years have been designed by white guys, not necessarily someone more familiar with the orient – like myself (I am half Japanese with a love of history).

Katana in Kaidan (for example) is not very much different than the katana of PFRPG Core, however in the hands of certain samurai archetypes it can be a spectacular weapon with that archetype’s applied skill, not so much the weapon itself.

There have been so many little things wrong in Oriental Adventures/L5R over the years, and will be correct in Kaidan. Shugenja (divine casters) in OA/L5R is a word taken out of context. Shugenja means any person (farmer, child) who practices the folk religion, Shugendo. It doesn’t mean priest. In fact Shugenja to Shugendo is equivalent to Christian to Christianity. The correct term for a priest of Shugendo is a yamabushi – and that’s what they are called in Kaidan.

So yeah, I’m kind of a granular guy, but my intentions are without too much detail, creating layers of accurate detail to better fit my fantasy Japan with my understanding with what is true and not true – trying to build a better setting.

#10 Comment By Gamerprinter On July 25, 2012 @ 11:17 am

Kensai – no such word in the Japanese language.

Kensei (ken-say) is a sword saint, but you won’t find this word in any western RPG, except the soon to be released (Oct) for Kaidan.

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On July 25, 2012 @ 11:51 am

Yes, I’ve had the debate come up–particularly when my peers and I were younger. “Realism” was supremely important at the time, and the idea of genre trumping reality was a completely foreign concept.

Since my 20s, most remaining debates are about guns. [The specific model matters a lot, say my experts at the table; I shrug and let them reorganize the damage by caliber or whatever, ensuring that the overall scale remains constant.] Or I explain that it’s FATE–a gun and a punch are each perfect in specific situations, but their “real lethality” doesn’t enter into the game at all.

#12 Comment By Roxysteve On July 25, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

Yes! And what about those types that have Animal Companions which get sent into battle yet never seem to be offered so much as a helmetful of water to drink off the grid? Drives me nutso when someone like that says they are into “immersion roleplaying”.

#13 Comment By Roxysteve On July 25, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

See, I often wish people would read “genre convention” when I say “realism” because I’ve already adjusted my inner physics model for the genre under discussion to make my point. Realism is a relative term in these discussions sometimes, not always absolute.

#14 Comment By Roxysteve On July 25, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

Was that because they had to make a roll to avoid falling between the ships? Sometimes a GM has to be careful what rules get enforced if those rules are producing aberrant non-genre behaviour.

#15 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 25, 2012 @ 8:21 pm

I was an 11M (Mechanized Infantry) in the late 90s, and am a bit of a gun fan, so I get where you’re coming from. Once the mindset is established, it’s easy to roll with it.

#16 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 25, 2012 @ 8:24 pm

Let it go. This is a game; that is reality. Never the twain shall meet.

It’s like when someone is complaining about something not being ‘period appropriate’ at a renaissance fair(e). My reply “If we were being period appropriate, there’d be one lord, a few courtiers, some guards, and the rest of us would be illiterate peasants. Sounds like fun.”

#17 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 25, 2012 @ 8:27 pm

The mechanics have to support the genre. If knives are just as good as pistols, and more reliable, why should they use the noisy things? I’d be tempted to house-rule that throwing a knife is a separate skill. If anyone complains, take them outside with a BB gun and a butter knife, and ask them to hit something ten feet away with either…

#18 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 25, 2012 @ 8:29 pm

Verisimilitude. The most loved and hated word in a gamer’s vocabulary. It has to be real enough not to break the immersion, either on the ‘too realistic’ side or the ‘too fantastic’ side.

#19 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 25, 2012 @ 8:37 pm

It matters, but not that much. (See? I wrote the danged article and I still get sucked into ‘realism’ debates.)

Heck, in the first four Ian Fleming books, James Bond used a .25 caliber pistol with less muzzle energy than a .22, and he seemed to do okay with it…

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#21 Comment By Nils Anker Tønner-Oldefar On July 26, 2012 @ 2:37 am

Like the article.
The whole realism aspect of gaming always ticks me off. Especially when it comes to weapons (and especially when used in fatasy context “The elven warbow is completely unrealistic! That dragon will have to wait!”). Most systems don’t allow for really complex graphs representing kinetic drop-off over range and other nerdy stuff which I have no knowlegde off what so ever. And they shouldn’t. Just like games shouldn’t include (too many) rules for infection based on wound severity, humidity and so forth.
A game COULD have all those rules, but I don’t believe it would be fun to play it. I would rather slice through legions of ninja with my katana than having to check to see if its damage drops off after each kill as the blade dulls.

#22 Comment By Roxysteve On July 26, 2012 @ 8:25 am

There you go with that GURPSy “reality check” thing again!

#23 Comment By shawnhcorey On July 26, 2012 @ 8:56 am

All imagination is based in reality. Without RPGs having a base in reality, you have an abstract games like checkers or chess. I don’t want to play a game like that, so yeah, I’ll complain.

BTW, most lords, courtiers, guards, and peasants were illiterate simply because there was so little reading material. With nothing to practice on, people didn’t have much opportunity to learn the skill.

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#26 Comment By jpmg90 On November 13, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

I think this is very interesting and would like to look more into Kaidan. I particularly like how you have a Katana giving benefits to particular archetypes and not just anyone who can use a sword. (which in most cases is true)

Also with the vocabulary wrong, that just seems a bit amateurish with those larger names. Could they not spare the expense to check the internet to see if their translations were correct or even ask an expert when attempting a genre game?

#27 Comment By Silveressa On February 22, 2014 @ 12:59 am

In non fantasy games (as in anything in a “real world” style setting my group usually switch genre conventions with common sense unless we agree before hand to do things differently.

Just because the combat rules theoretically allow you to collide your starship at a speed nearly that of light into another starship also moving at said speed and take only “moderate shield/hull damage,” doesn’t necessarily mean the laws of physics will allow said impact to be quite so “gentle.”

In high fantasy games with magic, summoning, and divine intervention I tend to ignore such details unless running a gritty fantasy game; otherwise sure, your 15th level D&D warrior can jump off a mountain, fall over a thousand feet, take the damage and still run into melee with orcs.

The world is full of magic and larger then life Hercules/Xena style heroes/heroines so it *almost* feels normal.

In the end I think it depends on the game in question, and how “real” its supposed to be, and more importantly how “real” the players expect things to be.

In real life shooting a propane tank with a hand gun (or even a rifle) won’t make it explode, in the movies (and my more cinematic modern day campaigns) you can make them blow apart with a few well placed .9mm rounds.

The key to a fun game for my group is to speak with the players and settle on how cinematic we want the physics of the world to be so everyone is gaming on the same page and the GM can adjust rules as needed, (or pick a rule set better suited to the level of realism we desire.)

In our games we usually set them to one of three levels:

Real Life Realism:

The laws of physics/thermodynamics and the durability of equipment and characters as well as the lethality of weapons/the environment are pretty much the way they are in real life. (or as close as the game system can represent)

This means car doors are no barrier to bullets, even a single well placed gunshot can be potentially fatal, and leaping from a second story building onto pavement will likely result in the need for a visit to the hospital.

We’ve used this level to great effect when running police dramas, (Shield, NYPD Blue) gritty street level supers games, survival horror, gritty fantasy (Game of Thrones) and mostly hard sci-fi campaigns. (Battlestar Galactica, Mars, Alternity’s Star Drive)

The high threat level makes combat a serious undertaking and something most people enter into with a degree of caution, which fits well with the story arcs and general theme.

Cinematic Movie Realism:

Physics is a lot more gentle here, and luck is often on the side of the good guys/gals, much like you see in a typical Action/Adventure movie.

At this level as long as the heroes/heroines fight smart they stand a better then average chance of winning, and even screw ups are more likely to put them in the hospital then the morgue.

We use this level most often when running Jame Bond style thrillers, Shadowrun, and most space faring sci-fi (Fire Fly, Babylon 5) and fantasy games.

High Magic/Big Damn Hero Realism:

The laws of physics are so soft here they squish, and stuff that would never work in real life stands a fair chance of being successful if they are suitably heroic/villainous or exciting at the time, especially if the player makes it sound plausible within the game settings frame work.

We’ve used this level of realism to represent larger then life supers games, high fantasy and Star Trek style sci-fi, pretty much anything that thumbs its nose at Einstein and where the coolness of something trumps its plausibility every time.

As long as everyone agrees to a realism level and any requisite rules to represent such are ironed out ahead of time, it usually can be made a non issue.


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