REALISM IN YOUR ROLEPLAYING GAMES
Realism is a double-edged sword in roleplaying games. You both need it and strive for it to make your fantasy game believable, yet too much realism can just as likely ruin your game. The act of creation is not an easy job, but as GM, one must walk that fine line between too little and too much.
But exactly what is realism? Why is it important? How can too much be a bad thing? You have to know these things when you're GM, you know? So in case you don't know or would like to learn more, let me tell you some of what I've learned.
I've often heard it said that a game of magic and spells and mythical creatures, for example, can't possibly be realistic, so why bother trying to make it realistic? Or maybe one says , "This part is so unrealistic that any other part is allowed to be just as unrealistic." Magic is obviously not real, they often point out, and therefore no game with magic in it can be realistic, and therefore nothing else has to make sense either. Right? Wrong!
People who say such things lack a fundamental understanding of what we mean by realism in works of fiction (any and all fiction, and not just fantasy or even just games). But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Now, it is true the vast majority of fiction is well rooted in our real world experiences. It must be. The laws of the universe are self-consistent and are not arbitrarily or selectively applied to some while not applied to others. Thus, they cannot help but become the yardstick by which realism is measured since they work so effortlessly and automatically and without apparent supervision. They were true before we were born, are true now, and will be true long after we are gone. The laws of the universe become basic to our understanding of what is and what isn't real.
In fact, most roleplaying game systems will not only be built around real world simulations, but also around human cultures; these will form the backbone of most of your roleplaying settings. No matter how many races or choices of fantastic creatures you may play, no matter how many non-human cultures your character may visit, it will be the human culture that sets the foundation and standard for most of our efforts. Why? Simply because we know it so well, have experiences with it, and can use the real world as our guide to what we can expect in the fantasy world or fantasy culture. Our real experiences are the framework upon which we build our ideas for other societies, and they certainly are what we will use to judge others.
Besides, since we are human, we sort of like being told we are special in some mysterious way. So humans are often given some rather unique advantages such that if taken to their logical conclusions, would suggest humans are superior to other races. As this lends a good feeling to the player (who is, not coincidentally, human), it also adds enjoyment to the game for no extra costs. This human centric attitude is the most prevalent in all games that I've seen. But I digress.
However, even though practically all our endeavors are grounded in real world experiences, this does not mean we are limited to them. We can make things up. In fact, we can make a lot of things up if we wish. Whatever it is we desire, we can just assume it will be true on this world or in that universe. Magic, for example. Or for a more familiar example, let's use science fiction. Star Trek is fairly well known, so I'll use that.
The laws of science here in our real universe seem to suggest that nothing with rest mass can travel faster than the speed of light. Maybe this is always true, maybe it isn't (it is true as far as we know, but we admit we don't know everything so one day we may discover how to travel faster than light). Current knowledge suggests being limited to the speed of light is fundamental to our universe and will always be so. Thus, faster than light travel while confined to the prime material plane is not possible. But in fiction, we can make it so. *SNAP!* Done. Such an understanding becomes a basic "premise" of that fictional universe. (A premise is an axiom or assumption we will accept as true without question). Now, universal law in this fictional universe says we can travel faster than light. Exactly HOW this is accomplished need not be explained to use it in our stories. We just accept it as true and as real while playing there or reading stories based on that premise.
At this point, no one saying, "Hey, nothing can travel faster than light," demonstrates how this universe is unrealistic. Not at all. The world only needs to be self-consistent. So, if assumed to be true in the fictional world at one place, it must simultaneously be true elsewhere in that fictional world unless you have a darn good reason or justification for why it isn't. Hence, we take it as fact we can travel faster than light in this universe (under whatever provisions the story deems necessary, like having a ship with warp drive, for example).
Inconsistencies will only arise then, not when basic axioms are contrary to real world knowledge, but when something inside that world is inconsistent with something else inside that same world. For instance, if it takes 3 days at maximum warp speed to go X distance in one episode, it looks bad if in another episode they can travel X distance (or more) in only a few moments while using normal warp drive. In some stories they say you can't use the transporter to transport antimatter (if you could, you could beam a lot of it to another ship instead of going yourself, and instantly annihilate them from the inside out). Yet, in other stories, you CAN apparently beam antimatter around.
Actually, transporter, replicater, and holo-deck technologies are rife with inconsistencies, and I frequently cringe when some episode is based primarily on one of these things. They're pretty stupid. In any event, such inconsistencies are mostly the mark of bad writing or many different writers trying to contribute to one world vision (and ignoring certain fictional universal facts for dramatic license).
In many ways, what is realistic can all be summed up if you understand the differences between logically sound arguments and logically valid arguments. To be valid, it must only conform to the proper Aristotelian form, which is mostly accepting the premise or premises (the given data) as true and seeing what you may logically conclude from these facts.
All elephants are pink.
This is a perfectly valid, logical argument. It has, therefore, the mark of realism we seek. But some may point out: "Hey, elephants aren't pink, and even if you painted one pink, ALL elephants wouldn't be pink."
What they have discovered is that the argument is not logically sound. In short, something about the premise or premises is demonstrably inaccurate (at least, here on the real world). In a fantasy world, however, all elephants may be pink if that's what you want. Thus, only the logical things we may deduce from pink elephants need hold true for this world to be realistic.
Similarly, warp drive exists in Star Trek. Magic is real in
Be warned, however, that if you attempt to explain HOW your world works on a more fundamental level, this is fine, but the explanations themselves now need to be consistent with other laws and each other, and logical conclusions may be drawn from them. The more fantasy detail added, the better the game, but the greater the risk too.
This is the big problem. The more make believe stuff we toss in willy-nilly, the more likely we inadvertently put in things which will, upon closer examination, be shown to be inconsistent with something else we tossed in or with something about the real world we didn't expressly attempt to alter (like thermodynamics, for example). Just because we allow one with magic to fly (using a Fly spell, for example) doesn't mean they won't get cold zipping around in windy and wet conditions in the upper atmosphere, nor does it mean they can adequately breath the rarefied atmosphere as easily. We should keep these things in mind. We could, if we wished, also add properties to our Fly spell that compensate for temperature and atmosphere, but if we do, we need to make explicit mention of it. It will not be assumed to be true without going out of our way and flatly saying so. Without doing that, we assume normal conditions will prevail in such places. And if we do alter the Fly spell to include these things, it may be possible to use a Fly spell to breath longer if your character were accidentally sealed in a cavern after a cave-in, or stay warm while in arctic-like conditions, since that spell apparently can do something like that now that you've altered it. Logical conclusions will flow from your actions, so be careful. You may not like the consequences if you don't give serious thought to what you change.
Magic, in particular, is one of the largest problems. With magic in one's culture, many things that developed on Earth may not have developed in the same way, or even developed at all, in a magical setting. This is why magic should be considered at least relatively rare. The less of it there is, the less likely it will have a large impact on what we know is realistic, cultural development.
As an example, castles are really a kind of technology developed in their historic forms for a particular kind of warfare. But if magic was around and it were relatively common, they might have developed rather differently, if at all. A Transmute Rock To Mud spell, for example, would pretty much make all castles obsolete. Unless, of course, other magic developed in parallel to protect the castle from that spell. This is why I have always thought hidden, underground structures (let's call them 'dungeons') were more prevalent than castles in such places. 3rd edition
Sadly, I think it would have been far better to suggest Transmute Rock To Mud did not effect magical stone at all, and thus low-level, long duration spells, perhaps even similar to a cantrip in power like the Arcane Mark spell, might make any section of stone so enchanted technically 'magic' and thus immune to the Transmute Rock To Mud spell. Still, most would probably build underground dwellings and would not likely build castles to fend off mundane armies when magic like teleporting, dimension door, pass wall, plane shift, etc. always can get around that, and it only takes one person on the inside to open up the castle gates. Underground complexes like "dungeons" are at least hard to see and freely using many such spells becomes problematic, dangerous, and even potentially lethal if one must go in "blind" in regards to its layout. But I digress. The point is, with lots of magic in your fantasy society, things will develop differently.
At any rate, many spells have unforeseen consequences, both good or bad, and without benefit of real world testing, usually only play testing may ferret out inconsistencies and mistakes. Thus, the more magic a game has, the more likely there are mistakes or potential problems that will be discovered and must be handled.
Similarly, religion is a big problem. Here on Earth, what we know is built mostly around faith. There is no scientific proof of the existence of god (or nonexistence, for that matter). Yet in many fantasy worlds, there is nothing but proof. God, the afterlife, and what may happen there isn't really a matter of faith, but one of fact. Such a difference may have profound effects on how a culture develops.
Finally, on Earth we find that MAN is the only intelligent race (though this is debatable, we cannot communicate with any other species yet in a meaningful dialogue, so this is why this is important). The egocentric pride in thinking one is the epitome of creation or God's greatest work, or even the center of the universe, may never develop on worlds strewn with dozens of intelligent species. And the number of monsters and problems because of these monsters in the world are often so numerous, the more intelligent types often don't have the option of fighting amongst themselves as much, since it may take cooperation just to survive.
So, the long and the short of it is this: Most fantasy settings have differences, both large and small, both gross and subtle, and exactly how they may realistically unfold is a challenge to even imagine, let alone try to play under. But it's fun, so we'll give it our best shot.
Yet, even if we might expect non-humans to be prevalent, we will still have to assume most of our fantasy settings have surprising parallels to our Earth (no matter how unrealistic some of that may be). Without more similarities than differences, we'd be hopelessly lost and never able to assume the roles of our characters or play them properly with any degree of confidence.
But why is this realism stuff so important?
Realism provides conventional points of reference to help keep things believable. Without them, players will be lost, or worse, might think they can do whatever they imagine they can, no matter what the GM or the other players may feel about it, and all too often what they might try will simply not be believable. This will not work in a game. So we must have and maintain a sense of realism (at least as much as we are able), or we just will never believe in the world, care about it, or worse, care about our characters any more than we might concern ourselves with other game tokens to mark our place on some game board.
Also, it may be noted, when GMs write for their worlds and the NPCs that populate them, they should consider well the "reasons" why things are being done, or why they are the way they are on his or her world. Taking pains so it makes senses and is realistic is fundamentally important so players, via their PCs, can play intelligently and figure things out. If GMs slop in most anything for any reason and give no regard for realism or sense, how can a player be expected to figure things out? Quite simply, they can't. So NPCs should have means, motives, and opportunities for their actions, just like anyone else. GMs would do well to remember that when planning their scenarios, and if they can't answer the questions of why this or why that, or how come this or that, their entire world may be revealed for the ill-considered piece of garbage that it is, in many players' opinion.
So how do we maintain realism?
Naturally, the firmer your grasp of the real world, the keener your sense of why things really work, the better you will be able to mimic these qualities in the fantasy world. All GMs should be students of the real world. The borrowed bits of reality make up the core foundation of our games. And the more you know, the more you can use in your world.
For example, most games assume gravity exist and is real on their game world even if they don't say a lot about it. A few rules may actually cover situations like falling, but even these probably don't say the acceleration of gravity has:
a = 9.8 m/s^2 and point out the fact s = 4.9t^2.
The values in these equations may not even hold true on most other planets (and probably shouldn't as well), but something close is assumed or we must deal with the consequences we'd probably rather not.
When creating their worlds, GMs should draw heavily upon what they know best. This is true of writing any fiction. Fantasy roleplaying is no exception. But every GM is different in what they know best about the real world. One may be an excellent mathematician, another may be great at physics or chemistry, or another heavily versed in biology, while another is steeped in the intricacies of real world history or human psychology. You may be a farmer, a grocer, a butcher, a teacher, a student, a plumber, a soldier, a cartographer, an engineer, a health care worker, or any number of hundreds of other possibilities. Use this knowledge, whatever it may be that you know so well. Drag it into your game in some way. You needn't dwell on it in the game, but have something like it reflected in your game world. Every bit of well-grounded realism you add to your world could make it that much better. It may even help offset some of the unrealistic things you are forced to accept.
But don't stop there. Your players also have their areas of expertise. Encourage them to contribute what they know best, and help them express it in your game. If you know what they do or like to do, perhaps you could suggest a way to have this reflected in your game world, perhaps even through their character. They may make maps, design buildings or ships, have extensive knowledge of herbs or flowers, go hunting, scuba diving, work with animals, or just like to draw picture or write stories. If you can incorporate some of this stuff, not only will your world be better, that player will enjoy it that much more.
Next, borrow heavily from the nonfiction work of others, like historians, architects, and documentaries (nature and science documentaries are fantastic for this). For example, if you wish to use ships in your game, knowing something about ships will help a great deal. If all you have are the few bits and pieces offered in the core rule books, it will not even approach the realism of a GM who has real sailing experience (maybe he was in the navy or he really owns his own boat or ship). After watching a documentary about Viking ships, chances are you will be able to portray them more realistically in your game than before. The players will feel this confidence from you, they will see it working through you, and it is realistic and believable. Why? Because it is based on how things really work here. And if the player is the expert (and not the GM in one area), listen to their advice. Hopefully they are not so poor a player as to do nothing but berate your efforts if they fall short of their special knowledge in a particular area, but will instead offer to help fix it and make the whole game that much better.
As you learn more about the real world, you can add it to your game or simply just take it into account when making your rulings. Even knowing simple things, like the densities of metals (particularly gold) will help you avoid the foolish mistakes one often sees in movies, where characters are moving around gold bricks like they are light as painted clay instead of each one weighing 50 pounds or more, and easily carrying over their shoulder a bag of gold bricks or coins that should weigh over a thousand pounds. It's stupid, of course, but it happens quite a bit and you'll see it if you look for it.
Your next option is to borrow from fiction. Perhaps you are not up to the task to learn a great deal of detailed information about the real world, or maybe you simply don't have the time. Professionally published authors, on the other hand, have almost certainly done a ton of research. Why? Without it, most readers will see the unrealistic mistakes, think badly of the work, and it will never gain fame or popularity. Your own world may suffer a similar fate without a fair measure of realism. Thus, though you should refrain from out right theft of characters or other fine details of a work of fiction, one might use entire back drops, world settings, political intrigue, ideas, and all that made the rich tapestry of that fictional work to make your world based on it as enjoyable as the original literature.
Finally, failing that, you may totally rely on others to do it all for you, using a prefabricated module or box set, more or less using a complete world handed to you in one neat package. The trouble with this, however, is non original work may have been seen by your players already, or they may read it once they see what you are using, and it may simply not be as memorable, challenging, or exciting, and the wonder of new discovery of uncharted ideas may never be as rich. And as a GM using such material, you may never develop the pride you could from using your own creation, and you might become bored and less than inspired to keep going. True, you still must build upon that framework with your own ideas and scenarios, but then many other GMs and players are doing this as well and using that same framework. For many, this just isn't as satisfying, somehow.
In any event, whether you have it yourself, make it yourself, get it yourself, or borrow it from others, the transplanted reality from this world will anchor your world in reality. Now you need only remain consistent.
Actually, the easiest part of being consistent is just remembering or writing down your rulings. What they were yesterday, they will again be tomorrow. Players hate flip-flops. They feel uneasy when rules seem arbitrarily applied. Universal laws certainly don't act that way in reality, so not only is it blatantly unfair, it's so unrealistic, this may be all it takes to dissuade quality players from playing on your world ever again. Don't flip flop.
You should have good reasons for your decisions, so keep a notebook, write them down, and be consistent. Go ahead and write it in your PHB or DMG or core rulebook where the rule is found. (Write it in pencil, however, and lightly too ;-) You can change your mind for another group years later, but you should maintain consistency for each separate group of players. If you do change it, make sure the players know you are and why, and for gosh sake, if you must change it, do it before or after a session, and not mid session when a player may feel like you are ruling against them or their character rather than for your world. Even discuss the rulings with your players, and talk about why you think they are good rulings (usually before or after a session is best, but during the session can cause problems).
WARNING: Players may be more abusive if you openly explain your reasoning. It's ironic, actually, that if you say nothing, a good player may just accept it at face value or come up with his own ideas of what he thinks is happening, but if you try to justify your rulings, they may finally take exception to it since they hate your reasoning. The lesson: Be frugal with your explanations. Never offer them unless asked, and even then, only if you feel it prudent and don't feel pressured into revealing secrets.
I will say, however, there is a world of difference between not having a good reason and simply just not sharing it. As GM, you SHOULD have good reasons for what you do. Whether or not you share them with your players is up to you (and not your players, so don't let them bully you), but don't pretend to have good reasons when you don't. Most players can see right through that and think poorly of you and your world if you do that.
If nothing else, ask your players for help or even ask them what they think. Together you can probably come up with reasons and rules you all can live with. And they will probably reflect what you and your players agree is most realistic, thus adding to the overall enjoyment of the game. If your players are good players, they will probably not be trying to steer you only in directions that favor their own characters. This might happen, however, so getting several opinions from outside GMs may help.
Next we will take a harder look at the game system itself. Is it realistic? The game system may attempt to accurately depict the real world, or at least a portion of it, but then again it may not. It might not even care how unrealistic something is. Normal board games, in particular, don't care much at all. But then, the game pieces are not supposed to be self-aware, capable of questioning their own reality. In roleplaying games, this is exactly what they are supposed to be. Thus, they may question the world around them, and woe unto the GM's world that can be seen to be no more than a badly designed game, especially if this can be seen on the character level itself.
Alas, it is probably impossible to impose the level of realism required to prevent this 100% of the time without also making the game too unwieldy to play or take too long to make it worth the effort. For example, to get the ultimate level of realism in combat, we may need to take into account hundreds of variables, even for a meaningless random encounter, and it could take several hours to fight one skeleton or a lone orc. Next, we should adjust each of these nigh countless variables each time factors change. A little wound, slightly more fatigued, an extra nick in your sword, the dust scattered off the floor, etc. etc. etc., and all can have huge effects from one second to the next. If you don't take each one into account, the combat is NOT as realistic as it could be.
But we mostly don't want that level of realism. Particularly in a roleplaying game. Perhaps in a combat simulation game you might wish more detail in combat, but roleplaying isn't mostly about combat. It's more about avoiding the fight, or getting to the fight, or the reasons for the fight, or what you do after the fight, than it is about the fight itself. This is why roleplayers are apt to be more forgiving about losing realism with respect to non-roleplaying concerns (like combat). However, they are even more unforgiving about losing realism with respect to roleplaying options than your typical gamer would be, so artificial rules that impose restriction for game balance, if badly done, will bother them a heck of a lot more than most other gamers.
Play testing will always be an important part of game rules and game systems. With adequate play testing, most inconsistencies and problems with realism will become apparent, and thus they will likely be fixed. I say "likely" since the authors may not care about realism in some regards and in certain areas. Whether your preferred game systems does or not, I can only guess. But many systems have striven for a particular level of realism and in particular areas, and hopefully many will like what the game system provides as a starting point in their core rules.
Fortunately, the amount of detail and realism in a game is often dependent on what the GM and their players want. It's pretty subjective. The best games systems, therefore, will always be the ones flexible enough to accommodate varying levels of realism, and the GM and players can pick what they want and play at that level.
I will say this, though it is clearly just my take on matters. Roleplaying game systems, IMHO - In My Honest Opinion - should offer more realism as the standard rule before offering more realism as some obscure and optional rule. If players wish to ignore sections of the rules and sacrifice realism by doing it, they may of course do this. It's simplicity itself. But if the standard rules are pretty unrealistic, it's a touch harder to add optional realism.
And worse, like it or not, most players, particularly new to the roleplaying hobby, will follow the standard rules long before they explore more realistic optional ones.
Such considerations usually only come into play, however, when optional rules must rewrite or overwrite standard rules and are not just added on. For example, in 2nd edition
3rd edition D&D, on the other hand, has optional suggestions the GM may heed to add more realism, but they are not clearly spelled out in the rules, and they usually must be spliced in, or sections of the standard rules must be ignored, altered, or overwritten. For example, in 3e they so intertwined racial and cultural issues in the standard rules that exercising more realistic options of being able to choose both race and culture (assuming your character grew up in a different culture than most of their ilk) would require you pull apart standard rules, decide which skills are racial and which ones are cultural, then apply them and hope game balance isn't compromised. But which are cultural and which are racial are not clearly stated in the PHB. Furthermore, lots of their class balancing rules assume race and culture will match, and by not following this closely, you will likely run into some game balance problems.
Game systems that cater to non roleplaying ideals as standard may be quite popular, particularly with new players just starting out, and they may even sell better since they give the customer exactly what they want at that time. Optional and more realistic considerations, therefore, are almost implied to be not as important, and this idea may or may not hinder development toward more roleplaying ideals. In any event, having more realistic options at least clearly spelled out would mitigate such fears on my part (which I again wish to remind you are my subjective concerns and may not be yours at all). So I'll always favor a game system that offers more realistic rules as standard over systems that "suggest" GMs "may" add more realism, particularly when they don't clearly say exactly how.
Simply stated, if you wish to know why I prefer more realism as standard rather than optional, it's that it adds believability to the game, it allows players to play intelligently and figure things out, which adds excitement and depth, which in turn is more intriguing and long lasting and new and different on many more levels, which in turn makes your roleplaying interests last longer, which actually makes your investment in buying roleplaying materials last much longer (for years, perhaps even decades), which makes word of mouth praise for this hobby increase, which makes it more likely players will try it, like it, and keep on playing and running more quality games, which means more players can more easily find a good game to play in. And I'm a player ;-)
So I'm of the opinion that striving for roleplaying ideals to begin with will be more fun, last longer, and make the hobby more enjoyable, and its participants will (hopefully) quickly learn to have more worthwhile goals than kill the monster, collect the treasure, kill the monster, collect the treasure, kill the monster, collect the. . . well, you probably know what I mean.
Finally, a few more comments on GMing and world creation.
Always keep in mind that 'realism' isn't the ultimate goal of roleplaying games. In fact, too much realism may ruin the game. A lot of things your characters must do may be unpleasant, boring, hard, tedious, and simply not fun. Does this mean the characters should be allowed not to do them? No. But it does often mean the players shouldn't be forced to do them. As players in a game, we'd rather concentrate on the more enjoyable aspects of our PC's lives. Concentrating of the high points while glossing over the low points is actually a good thing. But there's a big difference between having the player practice a skill four hours a day and having their PC do this. The PC should and does, but you needn't roleplay that part of their life unless you want to. But the player should keep in mind their character is doing some pretty hard things and working pretty hard and must take time to do this. If they keep this in mind, they will play their character better and more realistically.
As you add realism and depth to your world, as you lend your creation credibility by incorporating tried and true facts (from the real world, the ultimate in a play-tested reality), you should probably do this mostly for your own enjoyment. If you expect each of your players to ferret out exactly how your world is realistic and how you have made it so, they may become annoyed with you. Never insist your players read hundreds of pages of history, become an expert in ships, a Master of Science, or whatever it is you are that lent itself to your world. They won't do it. Nor should they.
The simple fact of the matter is this: If your world has this realistic detail, even if it isn't always immediately apparent to your players, it's a much better world than one without it. And if a player doesn't seek out the realism in your world, no harm, no foul. Conversely, if they seek out this realism and it isn't there to be discovered or revealed, harm, foul, and disbelief will surely follow, and many quality players will abandon your unrealistic game in short order. That's a crappy feeling (or so I'm led to believe; Ha ha;-)
A GM's consolation, then, is knowing they have done a good job, even if players don't always look for and see the hard work the GM puts into their creation. The player's consolation is that even if they don't look for the realism, odd inconsistencies in game world reality aren't hampering their enjoyment or getting in their way. And if they try to figure things out, more often than not, since the reasoning that created the scenario was realistic, they have a good chance of following the clues and solving the problems before them. If scenarios are built with no rhyme or reason, they really won't be able to do this.
Game systems that sought realism, added it, play tested for it, and achieved it are often thought to be the best game systems out there. Similarly, GMs who add realism, work hard on their world, and maintain consistency are often thought to be the best GMs and run the best worlds. In many players' gaming experiences, these are the ones they will remember, talk about, and try to emulate. Whether these players will ever acknowledge this is questionable, but if you know you did a good job, take pride in this. And if those players keep coming back for more of the same from you and your world, take this as its own reward.
And if you want just a little bit more praise for your efforts, all I can offer is my personal thanks. Your efforts toward making the best world you could, have made the entire hobby a better place for all of us. Thanks. Well done. Well done, indeed.
And never forget one fundamental fact:
It's good to be the GM ;-)
Happy Gaming ;-)
© May of 2001