Don't Blow Off Realism in Your Game
Recently Caleb from Blandco came out with a video talking about how D&D isn't "supposed to be realistic," responding to a video that Shad Brooks of Shadiversity posted mentioning how elements of RPGs generally are unrealistic (and made a plug for the RPG his team is designing). This brought to mind a question that I haven't addressed yet on this blog directly (only within narrow contexts for game rules in other RPGs): should RPGs be realistic?
Today we're going to discuss the three places where RPGs should embrace realism, and thus why realism shouldn't be trivialized. Then we'll take a look at the two places where realism should take the backseat, as too much realism can be bad for your gaming group and the fun of all during the session.
As a quick disclaimer, while naturally some things in your RPG may not be "realistic" (dragons, magic, etc., which we don't see on a daily basis), that's not what we mean by the term in this post (as I see this strawman argument all the time when used to argue against realism). What we're talking about is whether or not a person can understand what is possible or not in a game based on what they know to be possible or not in reality, and when that baseline for knowledge is disregarded - be that for the Rule of Cool, or a rule in the book - dangers arise.
I. Realism with Actions
To lead off, I should note that my school of thought says that RPGs are storytelling engines, not just strategy combat games. Combat will play a part, and is arguably the most important part where you need balance and rules because it's the part of the adventure that can limit player agency the most (through death).
But it's not the end-all be-all of the game, and thus should not be the end-all be-all of the discussion on realism (which is what everyone focuses on). A few examples of places where realism in actions aids in player agency and creativity will help.
I was once in a D&D game where realism became an issue: the DM had told me that my character couldn't use a shield while riding a horse, because he needed one hand to use a weapon and one hand to hold the reins. Now, this is not an issue with the ruleset (as the rules are silent on this), but as you'll see in the picture, it's been done by human beings since ancient times. So why, in a medieval fantasy setting, has no one figured out how to do this? No answer from the DM - just a "you can't do it" reply.
Now in the mind of the player, my agency was at stake. I didn't question characters shooting longbows while mounted (which has never been done in human history for various reasons) because suspension of realism is fine in some cases. But in this case a rejection of realism for no good reason limited the agency of the player by removing both the ability to protect the character from danger but also the ability of the character to cast spells (as the holy symbol for the cleric was on the shield). And all I wanted was realism: you hold the shield in the same hand as the reins.
Now there are other places where agency can be limited. Does your game system have movement rules and limits that make no sense (like how far you can jump, for example)? Does your game system classify shields as armor and therefore cannot strike/gain in skill in using one over time? When you put an arbitrary limit on the character, you remove player agency, and that is something we need to be mindful of when designing roleplay games.
II. Realism in Combat
This is the meat of the conversation, as most of the arguments against realism in RPGs stems from a combat scenario or another (which makes sense, as most RPGs heavily focus on combat in their rulesets). Shad makes the argument (and I think he's right) that a lot of RPGs dramatically streamline elements of combat to the point in which elements of it become unrealistic (the notion that everything is going on at once but we take turns resolving them and people can adjust what they do based on what happens earlier in the round being one of them).
And this is where I need to critique Blandco on his video: every example he gives is either 1) an extremely specialized situation (like attacking a surprised enemy, which a "heavily armored fighter" would almost never get against an opponent thanks to the rules for stealth and heavy armor), or 2) a situation where the target has 7 or less hit points (as a single attack is enough to kill the target, thereby removing the chance of an opportunity attack). So we need to be honest on this when presenting RPGs: the situations Caleb lays out would almost never happen as presented.
Realism in combat, for reasons similar to actions generally, is necessary because it helps players to know what is possible and what is not. If you can flip your sword around and whack someone with the pommel (bludgeoning damage), or slice with the edge (slashing damage), or thrust with the point (piercing damage), knowing if that is possible will help stimulate your creativity in combat. Let alone being able to use your sword as a lever arm for disarming someone, which basically no ruleset has.
III. Realism with Motivations
Motivations also need to be realistic. The ancient example of this is the player character who asks for expensive items for free or tells a guard to leave his post, and then says, "I roll (fill in the blank)" and performs their roll. And then the GM is left in the dangerous place of, "So how do I keep my players from running rampant on the world without saying that their roll doesn't matter?"
The answer is realism. Simply rolling for Persuade or Con of whatever doesn't work: there has to be a realistic chance that the person has a motivation that would cause them to act on the request. If a guard leaves his post, do you know what happens? He gets flogged best case scenario, or gets hanged worst case scenario. I don't care how beautiful or rhetorical or whatever your angle is: that guard is not going to move.
But there are, admittedly, places where realism gets in the way, so we should discuss those briefly.
IV. Unrealistic Simplicity
I get why some game systems don't make you roll for specific things (reading music and then playing music is typically simplified down to just playing it, as one quick example), and I think game systems get this right. It's not interesting to see every little detail worked out, and at the end of the day we're playing a game that we should enjoy playing. So if you are avoiding an element of realism for the sake of simplicity, this might be worth risking a bit of player agency.
This also helps to explain the whole "swinging at a target" issue in games: one attack action doesn't mean one strike at an opponent. It can represent a host of attempts in a short span of time, all culminating in the chance that it did some damage to the target. Simplification here just speeds up the game: your many strikes did X damage to the target, all by rolling once.
You can also simplify other elements of the game to make things move faster. I have taken to pre-rolling for NPCs so that I am not rolling in the moment. It means that the NPCs are always rolling the same numbers (so there's no chance at a wide swing in damage, parrying, etc.), but it speeds up combat, and gives my players a goal of what they need to roll to succeed (and avoid being hit or taken down in the fight). Is it overly simplistic? Maybe. Does it help us have more fun? Yes, because it keeps the focus where it should be: on the actions of the players.
V. Unrealistic Economy
I may get some blowback on this, but economies don't have to be realistic in your games. I know, a lot of games get blowback for how the economies don't actually work in the world, but in truth how important is this really? Unless your players are running a business (in which case do you really care about a monthly ledger indicating sales that are made? Does your party really care about the cost of wheat or iron? If so, you have a radically different group from the norm, and I have thoughts for you below), do you need a realistic economy?
We have limited time to prep for a session, and limited mental bandwidth during a session. If you choose to let economics slide for the sake of a good game experience, your players are not likely to complain. Be wise - they do need money, and their pay for a job should be commensurate with the risk - but don't feel like you need a perfect economy in your world. No normal player expects that.
Of course, there are some who derive their fun from seeing their income rise, and for these you can use an economy effectively wihout being overly complex. Some goods may sell for more or less based on what natural resources are around. I'm currently running a campaign where we have a merchant character as part of the group, and I chose 2-3 materials (Zurn calls them "alloys") that are rare in those parts, so selling an item there will get you 1-2 extra Advancement Points (Zurn's monetary system). It's simple, easy for both the player and the GM to remember, and it rewards player choices and encourages player agency while simplifying the economy of the world.
Have you removed whole sections of player action through simplifying the economy? Yes. Will it make your game more fun and allow you to spend more of your time doing the things the players care about? Yes. And that makes the sacrifice of agency worth the risk.
When you throw out realism in your game (regardless of the reason), you are going to limit the creativity of your players. And that is a failure for a roleplaying game. We want to create an environment where players know what is possible and what is not possible to guide their actions, and realism helps to provide that mooring for them. So realize that when you decide to throw out realism - because there are good reasons to do that at times - that you are taking a risk. Manage the risk.
Until next time,