Unrealistic = Bad?

Yesterday’s blog post about the best RPG character development system is getting series of good comments.

I spotted one comment, written by Jake:

The XP model, whilst commonly used, is weird if you think about it. You kill a load of monsters with a sword, then can spend your XP on magic. It’s totally unrealstic.

I agree that this type of development system (kill monsters, gain experience, spend points on whatever) is unrealistic but there are ways to make it more realistic.

For example, Lorezo Gatti commented:

I personally like (at least in theory) point buy systems, even if they are unlikely to be very balanced, because they are flexible: if some change makes sense (e.g. the GM decrees that during a long cruise everybody picks up some Sailing skill points), it can be compensated with available experience pools and other changes without changing the power level of the characters; if the power level changes (through experience awards or planned inflation) there is the maximum flexibility for converting the improvement to actual power; the character’s point value can take into account gear and other externalities.

This style works (I believe) well in some pen & paper RPGs: if the player can convince the game master that his character learned certain skills, then he can put some points to those skills. This can actually create more drama in the game as you try to find a way to convince the GM.

Another thing to ponder is: is it always bad?

It might be unrealistic, but does that really matter (in all cases)? Most games are unrealistic anyway. GTA 4 – you’d be dead very soon if those car crashes would be realistic. In Left 4 Dead you would be scared to hell if you’d see screaming zombies running towards you. There’s probably not a single real time strategy game where they would always display “failure” after campaign instead of “victory” (there’s no winners in wars) and no civilian kills or mental health aid that the soldiers require after killing people. All the games are somewhat unrealistic.

I think if the system works and makes the game feel fun – even if it’s unrealistic – it can be a good system.

I do agree with Jake, that there are games where this type of “kill monsters with sword, learn fireball spell” sounds dumb, and totally takes away something from the immersion. If it ruins the gameplay, it’s bad.

Your thoughts? (or suggestions for character development system)

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. To be honest, I think that those who hate this style of game play have not indulged in a good ole fashioned game of Final Fantasy 2 (4 in Japan, but 2 here in the states).

    You see, if you bust up enough demons and you play the right cards, your main character can become the perfect combination, or atleast my favorite of any character class, the paladin.

    I mean what better class is there that can bust you up with a sword and then hurt you, if you’re undead that is, with some gained magic skills. Perfect example of the XP system in all it’s glory.

  2. I try to make the stuff in my games realistic (to the game world) or make sense in most cases so it doesn’t destroy the illusion of make people think “huh, that’s just dumb”, plus the closer it is to reality the more familiar they are with it and don’t need to learn some wacky new game “law”. However, there are certainly times when it’s clearly good fun or just funny to move away from realistic…

  3. I would say that in the experience example, there should be some connection. Fore instance fighting monsters in a fire place with a sword has several places where it would be reasonable to improve. Learning fire magic when you are facing lots of fire creatures and magic makes sense. Becoming a better swordsman makes sense for using your sword a lot. Improving your prowess against fire element monsters and/or attacks works.

    It seems to me that the real problem is when it makes the player think it is a game, when they aren’t intended to be reminded. As you stated Juuso, there are some games that just don’t do well with “kill monsters with sword, learn fireball spell”.

  4. It depends, on the players for which the game is made; If by employing unrealistic character development rules the game is more enjoyable, then the answer should be pretty simple – this will fit well to people who play games casually or people who expect to become “ubers” in a short time. If the players seek more immersion and realism (or you have a reason for slowing down their characters’ advancement), then a more complex character development system can be used.

    Classic systems with a set of “attributes” (like: strength, dexterity, intelligence) and “skills” (like: swords, crossbows, fire magic) is simple and enjoyable at the same time. The attributes guarantee that specialization will be beneficial (e.g.: archers won’t need high strength, but they will benefit greatly from their dexterity), and general development will be still possible (nothing is stopping an archer trained in fire magic from casting a fireball or two, and wizards will be still able to use bow and arrow).

    As a rule of the thumb – the experience system should be realistic enough to be challenging, flexible enough to provide rewards for specialization and allow general development, and it should be simple enough to stay fun – nothing spoils it like a constant need to grind for experience points.

  5. Well, there is the james bond realism.
    James bond movies have, what I call, a low probability realism.
    If you see what happens in a james bond movie, you know it can’t really happen in real life. No guy have so much luck, and such perfect reflexes that he can pull out all the things james bond do.
    But… everything that happens in a james bond movie got at least a slight chance that it could have happened in the real world.
    There is no something of 0 probability to happen, like jumping 5 meters in the air with no explaination.
    So as long as games have systems that have slight probability of realism. Then it is realistic enough to be immersive.
    Like in a james bond movie.

  6. What’s an RPG? I like killing demons with a chainsaw.

Comments are closed.