The Deep Physics – Intro

There was a recent change to Planeshift’s crafting system. It received criticism from a portion the playerbase, largely those players felt that it added too much realism at the expense of fun. This is a common complaint and it is certainly understandable. Anyone who has ever grappled with the grappling mechanics in 3rd edition D&D understands this. Longtime MMO designers, such as Brian Green and Damian Schubert regard realism as a false god; one that gets in the way of gameplay.

What exactly is the problem with realism?

One of the delightful things about the old first edition AD&D was the smorgasboard of detailed, realistic special case rules for everything from loot in NPC pouches to detailed (and graphic) critical hit and critical miss tables that took seemingly everything into account. Rolling critical hits using the optional rules from Dragon Magazine was a mini-game in itself. Half of the Dungeon Master’s guide and almost all of the later rulebooks from the Fiend Folio onwards were an anthology of these special case rules. AD&D was in the tradition of the fantasy literature of Doyle and Tolkien. It had started as a game and had layer after layer of realism added and nurtured my simulationist, world building urges. It also had no sense of balance; that word that seems so important today. Viewed strictly through the game prism, AD&D was a horrible hodpodge. 2nd edition AD&D was the first attempt to simplify this multi-headed hydra, but it was not until the 3rd edition that D&D’s tyranny of special cases was substantially contained and even then – as with the grappling rules – this was not entirely so.

The problem with realism is the same problem that 1E had. In 1628, the Swedish navy’s newest warship set out on its maiden voyage. The Vasa was the king’s pride and one of the finest warships in the world; for about an hour. As it sailed out of port, it capsized and sank. It was recovered and restored during the 20th century and is now a museum exhibit in Stockholm. The reason it sank is that King Gustavus Adolphus insisted on putting more cannon on it than it was designed for, making it top heavy. Building lots of special case rules on top of a game is like building a top heavy ship.

Most modern persistent worlds are viewed as games rather than places. The exceptions are the social worlds such as Second Life; which follow in the footsteps of the MOOs of yore. A thematic adventure world that is a place first and a game second goes against the grain. This was not always so. Twenty years ago, most worlds billed themselves as simulations. In my lightweight rulesets post a few months ago, I suggested using physics and a lightweight ruleset instead of a heavyweight ruleset. The universe as we know it arises from a handful of rules. If you look at a ball game, such as tennis, something comes to light. The rules of the game define the boundaries of what good play is. The rules never define that a level 60 tennis player has a 95% chance of putting the ball on path X and that a level 55 player has a 80% chance of playing off of it. Newtonian mechanics defines how the ball behaves. The player simply chooses how he hits it and the designer simply defines the dimensions of the court and the scoring system. Unfortunately, most PW designers – as is most of the population in general – are woefully scientifically illiterate. Most people regards science – and physics in particular – as “complicated”; failing to understand that science – and physics in particular – is all about simplification. Because of this perception of complexity, when most designers do create realism rules, they invariably make them overcomplicated; and end up creating a Vasa.

The purpose of this post is to introduce a new series on building the physics which designers would then build the “rules” on top of. It is named in honor of the term CS Lewis used in the Narnia Series. Naturally, these will be lightweight rules and naturally, this series will have a simulationist rather than gamist bent. If you are a “game” designer first and foremost and enjoy the game design challenges that Dan Cook and Brian Green like to post on their blogs, then this series is probably not for you. If a framework where you can water down the wine for a little extra profit at a fool’s expense, tinker with the balance on your sword to bet match it to your swing style, smell the campfire, and feel the drizzle on your skin as you see the ruins through the mist sounds interesting to you, then this series is for you.


About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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