What goes into making a “realistic” world or game?
That’s an age old debate, actually. There are those who critisize Dungeons and Dragons for not being realistic enough, but, of course, the creators never really intended that it should be too terribly realistic. They were after smooth game play, which is what they got. Now, the current rules (3rd edition, as of this writing) are a better simulation of an imagined reality, but the game play suffers a bit for that realism. But, the more historically “pure” find that anything with that much magic in it can’t be very realistic at all.
There are alternatives to the standard Dungeons and Dragons, high-magic worlds, though. For one, there’s Columbia Games’ Hârn. And, the creator of Hârn, N. Robin Crosby, has written a nice introduction to that world. One thing I particularly like about his intro is that he reveals a certain amount of his methodology. (Readers can find that introduction here.)
Way back when I first found Hârn, it captured my imagination because it was a fully fleshed-out, authentic, working and coherent world. There really weren’t any other fantasy worlds designed for games that could say that. The closest thing would have been D&D’s Greyhawk, but even that left significant holes for the gamer to fill in on their own. For one thing, Hârn had a set of detailed, realistic-looking maps. It wasn’t done in a “arty” way, but more like a modern map might be drawn. And the “Hârndex” was a sort of Medieval Encyclopedia Brittanica. It had rough drawings that seemed authentically old and simple text. But, it was enough to ignite the imagination.
The other thing that impressed me so with Hârn was that the consequences were all pretty well thought out. In fact, that’s one of the reasons the designer gives for keeping magic fairly rare. Lots of magic being thrown around make it hard to work out all the potential consequences a society might experience. And, for me, it really added to the authenticity. The magic described in the text felt like Medieval magic. It was somewhat crude and mysterious and just a little bit random, too. It seemed to draw on ancient powers of the Earth that were frightening and dangerous. And, how else would that kind of culture, with a “realistic” education level, see magic? It would be a horribly frightening thing. Of course, so would a trip to the barber or the apothocary, but that’s in there, too.
Perhaps “realism” isn’t the right word. “Authenticity” describes it better. Hârn felt like a real place with real people because of the effort that the designer put into authenticity. Not only do the details work independantly, but all the parts fit into a complete, authenic whole. It’s that authenticity that made Hârn so interesting to me and keeps it in print and selling today.
In many ways, the details and authenticity of Hârn became the goal which I aspired to reach. Perhaps, one day, I will.