Minimal Verisimilitude in RPGs

I don't believe in 'complex' or 'simple' things - those words point to feelings, not facts, so we may as well debate the nature of beauty. But I can count how many steps a system has, and show anyone the result.

RPG systems have a minimum number of steps to retain that nice feeling of realism, and I think that minimum number is '4'.

Step 1: Resolution

RPGs can give all manner of results, but at the very least they must show 'pass/ fail'.

Step 2: Items

Of course, not all RPGs want to feel realistic. Anime RPGs want to represent crazy sword-warrior cats, not physics. If the rules say to break combat ties by looking at which character has the brightest hair-colour, then that makes sense in anime-world.

But for most games, that won't work. If we pull up basic Fate Core rules, we'll notice that weapons don't do much of anything, which naturally leads to problems.

Okay, now we've subdued the guard, I want to take his sword. What stats does it have?

If the rules have nothing to say about weapons, then the GM has to say:

Well, nothing - it really functions the same as your dagger.

The dice do not recognize the sword, so the players' plans have been ruined. Perhaps they would have sneaked past the guard instead of knocking him out, if they'd known his sword didn't help them.

Whether the sword gives a +1 or a +2 doesn't really matter, as long as the players can see the world working as expected, they can plan.

Step 3: Skills

A system with Attributes + Skills isn't strictly necessary. In fact, in D&D it mostly seems to bog play down. It feels like Strength and Dexterity exist to interact with combat, while the Skills just get these random starting bonuses.

Cutting out those Attributes removes another step in the resolution mechanics.

(And on that note, it would be easier to give elves a +1 bonus to their spot skill, rather than tracking it separately)

Personally, I prefer an Ability + Skill matrix, where each Skill can be used in a different way to form an actual ability.

  • Strength + Larceny = busting doors in
  • Dexterity + Larceny = picking pockets
  • Speed + Larceny = snatch and run

If your system has 4 Attributes and 10 Skills, then that gives you (4 x 10) 40 Skills to work with in total. But of course, that reduces the things to write on the character sheet - it will not actually save you a step when using the system.

Step 4: Target Numbers

A,D&D had a ridiculous mechanic for skills (called "non-weapon proficiencies"). If you want to start a fire, you first need the proficiency, then you roll under your Wisdom score on a D20, with a -1 penalty. No exceptions - the penalty to the skill is -1 (or +1, I can't remember the exact rules). Come rain, shine, or a forest fire - it doesn't matter. The roll remains the same.

Once again, this looks deranged, and pulls players out of their environment.

And So...

I take the minimum number of steps for any RPG's resolution mechanics to be four.