14 December 2014

R-E-A-L-I-S-M: The Hated Word

 "Realism" is one of the dirtiest words in RPG Internet discussions.  Has been for years.  D&D fanboys
are especially touchy where it's concerned (understandably so, given D&D), as well as the various pedants huffily proclaiming that "fantasy" CAN'T be "realistic," and that we ought to be using "verisimilitude" or "emulation" instead.

(Whatever.  "Realism" is the word in common use.  When I addressed a condolence card to a friend who lives in the state southeast of mine, I didn't address it to "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations."  I mailed it to Rhode Island.  If you can't work with terms in popular circulation, the heck with it.)

So by this point I have a sticky response to the issue, which originates from a RPGnet discussion several years ago.  To wit:

I think the real question here is, "why do you consider the mechanics nonsense"? We're talking an imaginary dwarf, with 100 imaginary hit points, falling off an imaginary cliff, taking damage that is, also, imaginary. If the designer finds it desirable that a character could fall off a cliff and survive, it will be so. If not, for whatever reason, it will not be. (The first mention of "but it's not REALISTIC!" gets you kicked. This is all *imaginary*, remember?)

If I had a dime for every time I've heard this over the last couple decades, I could pay all the bills this month.

Well, yes, it's all imaginary.  So why use cliffs, or indeed any recognizable terrain at all?  Why not adventure in big fluffy masses of amorphia?  Or just teleport to anywhere we want to go, and imagine it to be anything convenient to us?

Why should we use perfectly recognizable medieval weaponry?  It's imaginary, isn't it?  Don't limit yourself, hit the enemy with your kerfluffmezoz or your wheezimithuzit!

And since it doesn't have to make sense, we don't need to have these pesky movement rules, besides which we all want to be Matrixy and John Woo-esque, don't we?  Tell your DM that you're running through the air and phasing right through every intervening tree and foe to hit the Big Bad with your wheezimithuzit, and better yet you're doing it before he cut down your friend, because since it's all imaginary we don't have to use linear time either.

No, I don't care that I rolled a "miss."  Skill progression is one of those boring realism constructs, and I don't believe in it.  Let's just imagine that I hit the Big Bad whenever I need to, and for twenty-five hundred d8 of damage, too.  Encumbrance is boringly realistic too, so I’m ignoring it, and I’d rather imagine that my snazzy quilted vest protected me like the glacis armor on a T-72, please.

Alright, show of hands.  Why don’t we play our RPGs that way?

It’s called suspension of disbelief. We put our games into recognizable settings that mimic real life.  We use swords in fantasy games because we have the expectation that such milieus use swords, and those swords do the relative damage of a sword instead of the damage of a 155mm mortar shell because that is our expectation too.  Our fantasy characters wear tunics and cloaks, live in walled cities or sacred groves, and scale ramparts where the force of gravity pulls us downward, not pushes us up.  We have an expectation of how fast we can walk, how far we can ride, and how long we can sail.  All these expectations are founded in -- wait for it -- reality.

To the degree we ignore these things, just because, we lose touch with suspension of disbelief.  If the ten-foot-tall Big Bad hits a peon with his greatsword, we expect the peon to be in a world of hurt; we don’t expect the sword to bounce off.  If the party wizard shoots a fireball at the orcs’ wooden stockade, we expect that it might catch fire; we don’t expect the wall to grow flowers instead. 

And if an armored dwarf takes a gainer off of a hundred foot sheer drop, we expect to find a soggy mass at the base of the cliff.  We sure as hell don't expect a dwarf boinging around like a rubber ball, happily warbling, "Bumbles bounce!"

That there are a great many gamers who want their rule systems to reflect reality, rather than ignore it -- so that we find ourselves constantly sidetracked as to issues of WHY suchandsuch doesn't make sense, or because the GM has to explain how come the dwarf isn't a soggy mass -- ought be a surprise to no one.

Why is it such a surprise to you?


  1. I'm actually surprised at how few gamers seem to want anything to make sense, let alone be realistic. At least, how few of those types of gamers write about it on the Internet. The gamers I play with are usually relatively realism-conscious. Which leads me to believe that it's mainly just that D&D is so ubiquitous and so pervasively self-inconsistent and unrealistic (and the spawn of so many other game assumptions that spread to computer games), that it's become a need of some people to argue that there must be good reasons for games to not make sense. And there are reasons... just reasons that tend to be unnecessary and don't make particularly good (if any) sense. ;-)

    1. It comes down to a couple of things. First is the intense tribalism that permeates the hobby. It's not enough to stand and fall on "Look, it's just a game, this is the way it is, and I like what I'm used to playing." To claim that D&D "isn't realistic" is seen as a slur against Their Game, to be fought with all their might.

      The second is more fundamental to our culture ("our" being American, granted). We're a profoundly anti-intellectual lot, to the point where "elitist" is a slur, and people spend a lot of energy adopting trappings of "common" folk -- popular entertainments, guzzling beer, speaking improperly, C+W music, baseball caps, blue jeans, poor manners, you have it -- whether they're genuinely into such things or not. Failure to jeer at the elitists must mean you're ONE OF THEM.

      Someone who plays tabletop RPGs is already on the wrong side of that divide. It's an innately intellectual pastime. There's nothing athletic about it. Its roots are not only in literature, but weird genre literature that high school jocks decidedly avoided. There's a certain stigma about its players: of the stereotype of the fat, loser kid who played that weird game with the weirdly shaped dice in junior high school, pretending they were great warriors and certain never to get laid.

      So above and beyond all the other effects of tribalism, there's a great need to find SOME other "elitist" to sneer at, something about which I've editorialized in other posts. Realism is a good punching bag for that: you can sneer at people for playing a "more realistic" game than you do, or for those who want more realistic settings than you do, or who might just find a certain common result just too out there to swallow.