Realism in RPGs Redux

When people badmouth realism in RPGs, they’re usually complaining about one of two things: unwarranted complexity or endless arguments over the facts of the matter.  Sometimes both, tossing in nobody actually wants it anyway, or it’s pointless to discuss realism in games where there are things like dragons and magic.  Reality, though, is the bedrock on which all RPGs lie, because the world and scope of action in RPGs is radically under-determined by the rules.  Players have complete freedom of action in a wide-open world, and in order to function they (and the GM) need some starting point: reality is what we’ve got.  It’s the jumping off point for making those decisions and interpreting the rules, even if it’s often filtered through the lens of genre1 or what would be playable and fun before a final determination is made.

Board games no matter how simple (Snakes & Ladders, Parcheesi), or complex (Advanced Squad Leader, or Drang Nach Osten) completely detail all the legal moves and all the relevant details at every point in the game.  In Monopoly there is no “Can I bribe the cop so I don’t go to jail?”  There is no cop, there’s just a square that you land on and the rules detail the consequences for landing on it.  You can’t elect to just stop for the night in the hotel you own at Marvin Gardens, and continue your trip next turn.  In an RPG those things are possible, and more.  Anything the players can conceive can be tried, and no RPG can possibly detail rules that cover every circumstance.  None of them even try, relying instead on the mutual ability of the players and GM to appeal to reality to either interpret the circumstances in light of the rules or come up with a ruling on the spot to determine the outcome in the case.

This process is so fundamental to the very nature of RPGs that a lot of people don’t seem to notice that it’s going on.  The people who scoff that it’s ridiculous to look to reality in a game where there are wizards casting fireballs don’t stop to think that if an alien who knew nothing about humans saw that happen in a game, it would be justified in assuming that’s something all human characters can do, until it found evidence to the contrary.  We humans see the same thing and know that there has to be magic (or the equivalent) at work because we implicitly compare it to the baseline of reality.  Even in a fantasy setting, we understand it to be Reality+, in this case + magic that follows certain rules; it does not follow that just because there’s magic in the setting anything goes.  A player in the setting would justifiably believe that if a fireball was cast, it was a wizard not a peasant or a cow what done it.

So What?

You might say, ok, so we perforce use reality as our yardstick of what’s possible where the rules are silent, but what about realism and the rules themselves?  Sure, we can assume that normal humans don’t throw fireballs, and elephants can’t fit in sock drawers even if the rules don’t explicitly spell that out, but is realism at all relevant where there are rules?  Can’t you say here are the rules and leave it at that?

Not really. First, rules require interpretation. They’re not self-executing, and the more they try to cover every edge case to avoid wiggle-room and misinterpretation the denser and more complex they get. Almost all problems from “rules-lawyering” arise from trying to force a favorable interpretation based on ambiguous language or over-literal reading. Almost every exhortation to “use common sense” and remember Rule 0 to prevent abuse is essentially advice to bear in mind you should use your reality yardstick in judging how to interpret a rule2. On the other hand rules that are very general and don’t try to tie down all the interactions with other rules often require a good deal of interpretation just to use them, in the form of judging the exact circumstances and how that changes the difficulty, or working out the consequences. Say you succeed on your Diplomacy check, what then? These sorts of rulings aren’t necessarily hard, but they almost always use your judgement, and that’s going to be based on what seems realistic given the circumstances. Because you can’t believe it would happen in the real world that a perfect stranger walks up to a king and skilfully persuades him to abdicate in the stranger’s favor, in a game you rule it doesn’t happen no matter how well the player rolled.

Second, where rules contradict reality it presents a problem for players. It makes the outcome almost impossible to predict unless the player knows and can remember the rule in advance (which greatly limits the complexity of the rules unless you’re prepared to spend a lot of time looking them up during the game). Without foreknowledge no player is going to realize that a house-cat could prove a deadly threat to a first-level D&D character, or that a hand-grenade cannot kill an average civilian in Champions. Those are just two examples extreme enough that I hope everybody agrees are unrealistic, but even arguably plausible rules can trip players up if it doesn’t match what they know or think they know.

Finally, there is a large aesthetic component to the rules of an RPG. A rule may be perfectly serviceable in terms of being understood by the players, giving them enough to go on to make informed decisions, even fun in practice… and still rub them the wrong way because it portrays a world the rules of which don’t line up with how they think it ought to work. This is particularly bad when the rules make things impossible that the player has actually experienced (e.g. rules that make it impossible for characters to be as educated and skilled as the players themselves are, because of the prohibitive costs of being good a multiple musical instruments or languages). Dismissing these player concerns with the straw-man argument that they don’t really want realism because if they did they’d want every single aspect of the game to be completely accurate to the point of mind-numbing tedium is silly.

But, but…

So what about the twin specters of over-complication and endless argument over what the facts really are?

As far as over-complication: Don’t. Realism can often be enhanced without additional complication (such as picking reasonable scales that your abstract measures of time and distance represent without changing the actual rules about table-top units moved per turn), but supposing you have a situation where there’s a genuine trade-off of complexity vs. being able to reason from what would really happen? Pick a point where you get the best bang for your buck. That may differ for different players or even the same player at different times, but you should pick the level of detail and fidelity to the real world that represents the best compromise between letting players reason about the game world based on real-world knowledge and being simple enough to be fun to play at the table. It’s a balancing act, but you don’t get better rules by completely ignoring the weight on the side of reality any more than completely ignoring the weight on the side of simplicity.

As far as endless argument: If the player is making a bad-faith argument to try to secure a momentary advantage in the game and happens to be using realism as a handy stick, you have a problem player, not a problem with realism. Deal with that by dealing with the player, not telling all the players that facts and common sense aren’t welcome at your table. Similarly if the player is overly-enthusiastic about details and fidelity at a level that you and the rest of the players just don’t care about, deal with the player; you can admit that his interpretation might be more realistic3 while sticking to your guns that nevertheless for game purposes the rest of you agree what you’re doing is realistic enough. Maybe you’ll reconsider later, if you can see a way to accomplish it without bogging the game down, but for now it’s time to move on. But if the player has a point, then I think it’s only fair to consider it… if that would require too much time to hash it out then and there, pick a ruling and move on (personally I try and go with the player’s interpretation if I can, or at the very least let them have a do-over if they relied on something about how the real world works that’s not true according to the rules or genre). You can consider the evidence and what if anything to do about it should the situation come up in the future some time when you aren’t interrupting the game.

The Principle of Least Surprise

Basically what it comes down to is that without being able to piggyback your game play on what you know about the real world, how people and animals and tools and the whole shebang behave, you can’t possibly play something as open-ended as an RPG. Nor would there be any reason to. Unless you can fill in the blanks with reality, RPGs are just under-specified, ambiguous, frustrating board games where going off the menu of responses or trying to learn about or interact with details of the setting that haven’t been flagged as relevant leads to random contradictory results. RPGs have to start from the position that real-world knowledge and reasoning work except in certain specified areas, where they conform to the genre or idiosyncratic details about the setting or rules instead. Realism in RPGs consists of reducing the friction between the way the game behaves and the way the world behaves to manageable, comprehensible amounts. Deviations from the default of “The player tries to do X? What would happen in the real world if you tried that?” need to be deliberate, and preferably well thought out. If you sweep everything under the rug of, “Well it’s a game, you can’t expect it to make any sense! Just have fun with it!”, don’t be surprised if many players don’t find it fun at all.


  1. Genre almost always trumps reality, since that’s the point of playing a particular genre, but is even more under-determined than the rules.  Rules are at least written to cover general cases; all examples from genre works do is offer specific instances of how the creator resolved things, often for dramatic reasons . Reasoning from genre almost always requires an extra step of analogizing to the current situation.  In any case, genre fiction itself starts from a baseline of reality, so it only really comes up where it differs from prosaic reality.  Nobody has to cite scenes from a James Bond film to convince anybody of the existence of taxicabs, only of the feasibility of equipping an Aston Martin with machine guns and bullet-proof shields.  When I say “real world” or “reality” in this, I’m going to mean “real world + the stuff that genre trumps” but I’m not going to say it every time. 
  2. Theoretically issues of interpretation could also hinge on things like how tedious or complex one interpretation could be compared to another, but in practice those tend to be resolved trivially, without even need to discuss the pros and cons. 
  3. If it is. If it’s not, you can say you disagree. 

One thought on “Realism in RPGs Redux

  1. Chris C. says:

    Very interesting. One thing I’m always worried about (as a player or GM) is whether my own interpretation of reality will necessarily match up with that of others. Most of the good GMs I’ve played with will pre-empt that by giving you a sense of the odds of doing this or that before the die is thrown. And as a player I frequently ask the GM, would my character think he’d be able to do X? Or how would my character evaluate his chances of accomplishing Y (even just at a glance)? I’ve been lucky to play in groups where people generally talk about it up front, a ruling is made, and nobody gets overly hung up or bent out of shape about it. Like you say, the problem isn’t realism itself but in how we deal with it.

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