Realism in Roleplaying Games

Realism is a subject that regularly crops up in online and offline discussions about roleplaying games. Especially people who prefer a simulationist approach to roleplaying games tend to talk about this a lot. How realistic are the rules? Is it realistic that may character would do this or know that? In my opinion there’s no realism in roleplaying game and it’s actually a good thing.

At first let’s look at reality from a philosophical standpoint. Is reality objective? Or is it subjective? Is reality something you can measure or is it merely something we – as humans – have agreed on. I am no philosopher, but in my opinion, there are different kinds of realities. There’s the physical reality which we can measure and which is pretty objective, but the reality which we perceive is a totally different beast. Everything we perceive is ultimately distorted by our limited senses. We only see a small part of the visual spectrum, we can’t hear every frequency, and compared with a dog our sense of smell is basically non-existent. And if we move away from our senses into the realm of other “truths”, reality is basically just the major consensus narrative we can agree on.

So what does this have to do with roleplaying games? Actually quite a lot. I don’t know any RPG that actually tries to simulate the physical reality. It doesn’t make sense to simulate anything which humans can’t perceive directly or indirectly, so “realism” in roleplaying games is actually the attempt to simulate the preceived realism. And since most roleplaying game authors were inspired by books and movies, the consensus narrative they drew their ideas from is the reality as presented in these media.

I doubt anyone disagrees that movies and books often seem to be set in a parallel world and not the reality we seem to live in. In action movies cars explode a lot (which they usually don’t do in physical reality), bullets can not penetrate mere car doors, mortally wounded characters are back on their feet in no time, guns don’t have to be reloaded … the list goes on. In fantasy books and movies you also have elements like magic, which further deviate from that which you’d call reality.

Aside from that reality is boring. It’s exactly the reason why we play roleplaying games. We want to step into someone else’s shoes, do things you can’t do in real life. In roleplaying games, people play cops, soldiers, etc. but also focus on the “exciting” parts while leaving out all the tedium. Has your GM ever forced you to fill out a lot of paperwork after shooting a bad guy, or do you make regular rolls on cleaning your rifle? I have my doubts this is the case.

What we want in roleplaying games is not realism but something which feels internally consistent. The reality of Hollywood movies is not reality, it’s not even close to the major consensus narrative, but it works great for roleplaying games, because it can be a lot of fun. Even if you try to be more realistic than that, you will never have a game which is fully realistic and still playable. It just won’t work. In my opinion it doesn’t make any sense to discuss about realism in games. Realism just doesn’t apply. Instead you can focus on internal consistence. It makes much more sense and you can actually discuss productively about this. Reality is better left to the philosophers and physicists. Zwinkerndes Smiley

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

5 thoughts on “Realism in Roleplaying Games”

  1. I always talk about realism, but I always wanted to mean consistency. It took me a while to realize why people almost always got me wrong. Consistency is a much better term for what I mean. I will use it from now on.

  2. But some players (and GMs) are looking for differing levels of realism. Some players really really want their game system to model the differences between a .45ACP round and a 9mm Parabellum. Some players want to count rations and plan out wilderness expeditions. Others would rather hand wave it and move on. And those differing desires can kill a game.

  3. I would have to agree with the concept of consistency rather than realism. Yes, some gamers prefer a tantamount of bookkeeping, while others just handwave such things. In particular, the subject of literature and magic systems as been of high interest to me. Though many are not rigorously codified a vast majority are internally consistent as they relate to the setting of the book. The works of Brandon Sanderson are the first that come to mind.

    Overall though, as far as design is concerned, I have found it interesting how gamers perceive many of the core mechanics of games like BRP, RuneQuest and other D100 systems to be simulationist. In their own way they create an internally consistent balance between fantasy and realism.

    The argument for which often reverts to the limited amount of health these characters have and the use of spell points. Overall though its still just different strokes for different folks.

  4. Michael According to me your way of dealing with the subject is quite off topic. You talk about consistency in storytelling, while when talking about realism in role-playing it is about the realism of the game universe. You make a great confusion which leads you inevitably to an erroneous conclusion because it is irrelevant.

    Realism (which is not at all the same as reality) is absolutely essential to allow immersion in the setting. In the absence of realism you provoke the rupture of the willing suspension of disbelief which totally destroy the game.

    You say that “The reality of Hollywood movies is not reality, it’s not even close to the major consensus narrative, but it works great for roleplaying games, because it can be a lot of fun.” Excuse me but movies in which the cops never reload their weapons are very very bad movies that we have no pleasure to watch and it will be the same way very bad if it is the same thing in a role playing game.

    You also say “Aside from that reality is boring.” I have to say that realism in game situations is what adds the most interest in a role play. Imagine that you are in a high mountain and your party is attacked by a white dragon. Then a battle begins and some give blows of swords as the others cast spells until the battle is over.

    Now imagine that you are in the high mountain, that it is cold, that it is snowing and that an icy wind will cool even more the atmosphere then a white dragon attack your party. As you fight it you are numbed by the cold which slows down your actions and the warriors struggles to draw their swords because it frozed in his scabard. The fact of having snow up to your knees bothers you in your displacements and while a member of the group is about to blow in his magic horn you realize too late that it will trigger an avalanche. What do you prefer?

    As far as I am concerned, I prefer by far that realism is present in the game world. And that is not a question of narrative consistency. This is about the setting realism.

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