Painting realism on the unreal
A dear friend of mine, who also happens to be an award winning game designer, once talked about hosting a deep and professional discussion about game design with a ban on terms like ‘immersive’ and ‘realism’. There’s an awful lot of time and ink spent on trying to capture certain genies in certain bottles, even though the standard buy-in for a game has a lot more to do with how much fun the particular system and setting are going to be to play in. While there’s a certain logic to trying to emulate recognizable real world effects within the scope of an RPG, it falls flat in the face of cinematic action and physics breaking magic.
Even in more real world based games, such as White Wolf’s different Worlds of Darkness, there’s a tendency to want to fall back on what would happen in reality, even though there’s no logical precedent given the nature of that specific reality. Yes, there are parallels, but at the end of the day, people in the World of Darkness are used to frequent and unsolvable disappearances, shorter lifespans, and a whole host of secrets that are statistically unavoidable. While a cursory glance at the world seems to suggest that it’s only mildly different than Real Life, the massive amounts of basic setting bloat tells a much different story.
Consider: In Vampire, there are 13 main Clans, most of which have representatives in every major city. There are a similar amount of Werewolf Tribes and Mage Factions. In addition, the Mages have their counterparts in the form of the Technocracy, which gravitates to places of high technology and business like cities. And Werewolves have their counterparts in the different Changing Breeds (another 13 types, if you include everything that was made extinct as well) and the forces of the Wyrm, which were supposed to be completely pervasive. As in, most corporations were in thrall to the Wyrm, from McDonald’s to Hasbro to Budweiser to Dow Chemicals to Pfizer, as rendered in White Wolf equivalents as subsidiaries to Pentex. Running counter to all of this are the Hunters, who are either normal humans with a dangerous amount of information or supernatural characters with invested powers and mysterious patrons. This is not to factor any amount of Psychics, Wraiths, Changelings, Demons or otherwise.
Working on any basis of the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory, you’ve got sixty some separate power groups and a huge corporate interest that’s lurking literally everywhere (and anyone who works at McDonald’s is likely to run some level of Wyrm taint, so that net is cast pretty wide), meaning that everyone is aware of some aspect of the larger secret world regardless of what the texts want you to believe.
So, with that in mind, how do you inject reality in a world with such unreal potential?
There’s a statistical notation that a 911 Emergency Call takes an average of 58 minutes to respond to and the police force has a rate of 8.7% for their ability to solve cases. For our world, this is a bleak sort of reality for a bankrupt city and an overworked police force, with a declining population and a ridiculous amount of urban blight.
I have to assume that this sort of statistical notation would be standard in a World of Darkness game, from the view point of the average citizen. Most crimes would be unsolvable (how exactly do you write up a police report when a Werewolf in full Crinos has Raged his way through a trailer park?), the city government would be in thrall to the high end vampire councils that run the city from the shadows, and violent crimes would be an everyday occurrence from the influence of the Wyrm.
Outside of the cities, it becomes weirder, as the Werewolf and Changing Breed populations have tried to corner the market on anything that’s remotely wilderness for the sake of keeping their breeding populations stable. Sure, there are less in the way of Vampires to muck about with the city council, but there’s a lot more potential to attract the more subtle influences. In specific, the small towns in World of Darkness America are implied to be the resting place of the Urban Legends sort of darkness, things outside of the standard game lines.
At this point, it comes down to the purposes of the game itself. A true and proper World of Darkness requires that it rains when the night is darkest, and there’s no one there to hear your screams when you need them. It’s about the basic style of the world, where services like the utility companies only fail when it’s dramatic and the police are open to bribes if the player characters seem convincing enough.
This sort of mechanism pretty much necessitates that the player expectations are met, even though there’s nothing else to suggest that the world should work this way. As a GM more accustomed to the older methods of doing things, this starts to stray into a territory where most of the narrative is at the mercy of your players. But unless there’s a good reason for it to work another way, there’s simply no harm in letting this control slip. Even in a game where there is no mechanism to allow the players to alter the nature of the world, it can be a lot easier on the GM to let the players make the suggestions that keep everything running on the same tracks as their perceptions.
For my purposes, this would come about organically, with the players offering suggestions on things as they moved through the baselines of the world. It could be done in varying levels of subtlety, ranging from casual observations of their reactions to things (“This shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes for the police to arrive”) to outright inquiries of what the players figure should happen.
This has the added effect of allowing the GM to underscore the grim nature of the setting when these expectations are not met. If you know what the players have come to expect from the different aspects of the game, it will create a subtle tension when something goes wrong. And even minor things, like a delay in emergency responders or a busy signal with the cable company, can prey on the minds of the players and characters alike.