"Working without an empirical framework feels like 'cheating' . . ."
In response, let me quote my encyclopedia about empiricism:
"The doctrine that all knowledge of fact is derived from experience. Experience is made up of the following elements and the relations between them: 1) sensations; 2) memories; 3) willfully created images; 4) emotions and feelings; 5) acts of will; and 6) thoughts, judgments and beliefs (including expectations) about the first five. Empiricist philosophers defend their doctrine by successively examining all alleged types of factual knowledge and, for each of these types, either reducing it by analysis to terms of experience, or else rejecting it as not really knowledge after all, but only an ungrounded belief.
A classic example of empiricim is Hume's analysis of the concept of causality, published in 1739. It had been believed, for instance, that when one touches a hot stove and suffers a burn, one can observe two relations between the touching of the stove and the pain of the burn; first, the touching precedes the pain in time, and second, the touching causes (produces) the pain. But Hume analyzed the concept of cause and found that it was composed of two parts: 1) the time relationship between the touching of the stove and the subsequent pain; and 2) the expectation that pain will follow such an act, since in the past a similar contact has always been followed by a similar pain
This analysis involves both reduction and rejection. What we actually do experience, when we say that we know causality, is reduced in the above manner to sequence and expectation. But if anyone clings to the belief that there is something more to causality, such as a "necessary force" or "power" whereby a cause inevitably "produces" its effect, this belief is flatly rejected on the ground that a close scrutiny of experience reveals no such force, and that therefore the quoted terms have no meaning."
I fully acknowledge that there is a strong sentiment to relate game design to the empiricism of the "real world" ~ the effort to do so is all over the internet, not only with relation to RPGs but with dozens of other passions as well. And I can personally empathize with that sense of "cheating" . . . otherwise, I would not be plotting cities on a map using latitude and longitude as a guide. I like that the placement of things on my maps, or in my trade system, or related to any system I create, reflects the real world.
But we have to face it; no matter how impressive my maps may happen to be, or how extensive my trade system may be, none of it is ever going to get recognition from anyone who is "empirically respected" in the real world. I really don't have to worry about cheating anyone. Reality has as much to do with game design as "necessary force" has to do with empiricism. Reality is a bugbear.
My maps are useless empirically. My trade system has no relation whatsoever to the actual movement of goods and services. If I make an adjustment anywhere in that system, no one suffers. Hell, for the most part, the player can't begin to imagine the processes that lead to a given substance having a given price . . . so I can't even take pleasure that the small audience I have will understand what I'm doing. Empirically, I'm a total failure. I have to be. Nothing about what I'm doing can actually be applied to anything except to what I'm doing.
It makes a game. That is all. And I have to keep my focus on that truth continually, or it won't even accomplish that much. That is the mistake that many would-be game designers keep making. The sense that they're "cheating" someone ensures that they are also cheating themselves and their players.
We have to keep focused on what we're actually doing. We're not writing a thesis on the practical use of weapons and their comparison; we're not building a model that will prove the superiority of one weapon over another. We're not providing a framework that will enable a medieval simulationist to run a Tudor farm for five months . . . hell, if we were, we better get the hell out of numbers and graphs and go buy a damn farm in England. Monopoly is not an accurate representation of real estate metrics in Atlantic City, New Jersey, during the 1920s. Chess is not an accurate representation of political and religious influence in war during the Persian/Sassanian era of the 6th and 7th centuries. Game design is not, not I say, an academic pursuit.
And to this, let me add that I've been at this game design thing a long, long fucking time. I can afford to get a little interested in a reflection of accuracy (at best, a semblance, nothing better!) because I've smashed dozens of would-be systems in the past, all of them because they sucked as game systems. I have my eye firmly on the principal importance of everything that I make: that a player can understand it, a player can use it and a player can feel the importance of its use. When something doesn't work, I don't hesitate to smash it, no matter how much work went into it . . . because that's how design works.
We go back and back and back to the drawing board. And we remember that games are about variables and constraints, decisions and payoffs. It is not about proving or demonstrating that a pole-axe is a better weapon than a battle axe. We want to get close to reality, but in the long run, reality is the first head on the chopping block. It has to be.
Let me explain it another way. Those designers who have put together massively detailed and complicated games, researched extensively and exhaustively, did not start with those games. They started with tools like playing cards and game boards; they learned game theory first, they got good at it, and then they went on to try new and different things. They had critics, they had powerful voices ready to correct them when they were wrong, they had a passion that needed servicing and they had the wherewithal to go back to that drawing board a hundred times if need be. THEN, after all that, they decided to start researching a game they felt like creating.
I could add that they didn't spend half their lives reinventing the wheel. More to the point, they learned their business first, then dared to subvert it. Try to keep that in mind as you apply yourself to your business.