20 March 2022
Let's not let realism hinder fun, with this Game Master tip from Richard Jansen-Parkes
Perhaps this is an obvious statement to make. After all, most of us play games that only flirt with the concept of reality at the best of times. In real life, there are no dragons or aliens. Actual hackers don’t work by mind-jacking the defence grid, but by randomly trawling a database of customer passwords they stole from a soap website.
Despite this, it’s tempting for GMs and players alike to hoist the banner of realism as though it trumps all other arguments. We try to bring real-life arguments into games that are about as unreal as it’s possible to get. When you’re trying to do something cool, there are few things more infuriating to hear than: “Sorry, you can’t do that. It’s not very realistic.” Especially because it’s hard to argue against. Because it’s usually true.
Blackpowder weapons didn’t work in the way they’re usually portrayed in films and fantasy books. Studded leather armour, a staple piece of gear in Dungeons & Dragons and the games it inspired, never really existed. Serious armies didn’t use longswords as their primary weapons. Everything probably smelled real bad.
It’s just being true and being right aren’t necessarily the same thing.
Finding the Point
It’s tempting to read up on real-world armour and decide that your game needs a houserule for boiled leather. One that makes it behave like the thick, inflexible slab of cowhide it was in reality, rather than the surprisingly protective body-glove it’s usually portrayed as in fantasy media. However, before you announce this to the table you need to take a moment and decide what the point of such as rule actually is.
Is it to make things more satisfying for the players? Is taking away the rogue’s only real defence going to make things more exciting? Is it going to make things more enjoyable for you, as the GM?
If you run through all this and the only argument in the ‘pro’ column is a nod to realism, do you actually need the rule? Or is it the roleplaying equivalent of insisting that movies pause their dramatic scenes to show people nipping off to the loo and tying up shoelaces?
The fact is, most of us aren’t playing tabletop RPGs to learn more about the lives of medieval peasants. Mostly, we’re playing to be fantasy adventurers.
We’re here to kick arse and have fun. We want to be heroes and villains. We want to use the weapons that look cool, rather than one of a long list of minutely differentiated polearms. We want our characters to survive their battles and heal up offscreen (unless we’re playing Warhammer Fantasy RPG, in which case slowly dying of gangrene is one of the main draws of the game).
Very rarely do we care about any of this being realistic.
For this reason, unless you have a very good reason, whether something is realistic should usually be somewhere near the bottom of your long list of considerations while GMing. Whether something is fun or good for the story should be much closer to the top of the pile.
As with so many things, of course, there is always a “but…” waiting in the wings. It’s easy to look at the argument above and conclude that anything goes, so long as it’s fun.
However, at a certain point, we start running into absurdity. People are generally okay with the idea of anachronistic blackpowder pistols in fantasy games, but
if there are lasers and starships floating about it doesn’t feel fantasy anymore. You still want your world to feel vaguely bound by some laws of reality, even if you don’t care about them being that strict. Really, what you’re usually aiming for isn’t realism, but rather verisimilitude.
Verisimilitude means “the quality of seeming to be true or real,” with an emphasis placed on the “seeming.”
So long as something gels with the aesthetic of the game you’re playing, you’re probably going to be fine. You can have characters and NPCs waving swords about in wildly impractical fashions, but unless you have a really keen historical weapons enthusiast at the table, nobody is going to care all that much so long as it more or less looks okay. Years of exposure to wildly unrealistic fantasy movies and videogames mean we happily accept all kinds of things, so long as they don’t break the verisimilitude.
Of course, every now and then you do have a really keen historical weapons enthusiast at the table.
Use Your Nerds
For reasons that I can’t explain the mere two pages I’m allowed for this column, my wife is a huge historical ‘fiction’ costuming nerd. She seethes at BBC period pieces where women appear with the wrong kinds of bustles or wear hairstyles that would have them barred from polite society. She pauses movies to explain why the men are wearing their cravats wrong. She takes to Twitter to complain about necklines and usually finds countless people who agree with her.
This rolls over into the world of gaming. When we play a Lovecraftian adventure set in 1920s New York, she’s very keen on making sure her outfit is period-appropriate. She uses the style and the quality to build her character. Though it might not mean anything else to the people at the table, she knows that one dress will show her character as a bon vivant member of the up-and-coming social set, while another marks her as a member of the old, fading moneyed classes.
Describing NPCs with mismatched outfits, or wearing clothes that wouldn’t come unto style until the end of the Second World War, breaks her immersion in the game. It breaks verisimilitude because she knows what’s right and wrong.
Personally, I’m the same about things set in space. I spent a lot of my Master’s degree poring over orbital dynamics and thinking about how things work in frictionless zero gravity, and squirm when popular sci-fi gets it all wrong. I have to grit my teeth when people talk in a vacuum.
Sometimes, the best thing to do is to ask nerds like me and my wife to just let things slide. Accept that not everyone at the table is down with this kind of thing, and leave it at that.
If you have time, however, we can make for great resources. I’ve asked my wife to describe that other party members would be likely to be wearing, given their social status and approach to life. Other GMs have peppered me with queries about gravity and how close you can get to the sun without having to make some kind of a roll.
No Uncomfortable Realities
Before I run out of words, there’s one final thing that needs to be flagged up. Realism is a terrible excuse for making a game less enjoyable, but an appalling excuse for making a game upsetting.
In short, setting a campaign in turn-of-the-century London is no excuse for littering game night with racial stereotypes and
Look, it’s an unfortunate fact that prejudice exists. It’s also a fact that these attitudes, whether they be homophobia, racism, or any one of the million fragments of human nastiness out there, tend to be more overt the further back you head in time. This can create situations where overwise well-meaning GMs think that in order to make their historical game world feel accurate, they need to make it deeply prejudiced.
In truth, you really, really don’t. Unless the Society for Historically Accurate Discrimination has snipers on the roof overlooking your kitchen, nobody is forcing you to have that kind of content in your game. It’s not strictly realistic, but who cares? Barring access to a time machine, this was never on the cards anyway.
Of course, if everybody at the table wants to explore more sensitive content, and you’re really sure you can handle it responsibly, fill your boots. However, if you honestly think that having a kind of medieval-looking fantasy society somehow automatically means you need to have a faux-inquisition hunting down your only gay party member, you need to think about why you’re running your game.