Fantasy vs. Reality

Last time, I managed to upset quite a few people with my polarized view on the value of alignments and how vantage and idealistic perspective can alter what the meaning of those standards are.  One thing I touched upon was the viewpoint of your world in correlation to reality and fantasy - Mainly, if you have a more realistic perspective on your campaign, then your morality will drift a bit more towards neutral as opposed to the extremist views of a fantastical world.

But that lead me to an interesting thought sequence - How much reality do you want in your fantasy?
We all take certain things in our tabletop games for granted - I'll be able to fall 50 feet and still walk, or get stabbed repeatedly and not die (right away).  And in our D&D campaigns, we expect arcane magic, divine intervention, undead rampages, orcs and trolls, resurrections when our allies fall in battle, and being able to fire off 5 arrows in 6 seconds.  But when do you make the cut-off?

I've seen campaigns where they don't allow resurrection because it's just too far out of the realm of reality, while I've also seen campaigns that only allow divine spell-casting because that makes more sense than arcane (which opens up an entirely different can of "believability").  There have been discussions about applying physics to falling damage in order to make it more in line with reality, increasing damage at certain intervals determined by the height of the fall.  Then there's carrying capacities and being able to carry 200 lbs of equipment on a cross-country trip and it not really encumber you (because you can always sell those 10 longswords to your local blacksmith, right?).

Then, of course, we have the idea of armor and hit points.  The idea that someone has a harder time hitting you just because you're wearing thick, heavy armor?  That seems a bit contradictory to most, which is why there are systems out there that replace AC with damage reduction instead.  Their thought process behind this adjustment is that you're not necessarily harder to hit, but rather more difficult to damage as your armor will absorb most of the blow.  Makes sense, but at the same time it adds another layer of mechanics to a system that already has complaints of taking too long during combat.  Rather you can simply know what your AC levels are - whether most of the character's defense comes from dexterity or straight armor - and decide "This blow hits your base AC, but the blow glances off of your armor, inflicting miniscule damage."

When it comes to your character's vitality in battle, being able to take blow after blow after blow and still stand tall.  Personally, I know that I'd probably pass out after being stabbed once, but that's why I'm a level-0 commoner.  Of course a 10th level fighter has been in the front lines for years, building up scar tissue and destroying nerve endings.  And we've all seen the part in the movie where our hero takes 10 arrows to the chest, yet is still able to fend off the bad guys.  Instead, some people chose to give their characters a limited pool of hit points, only increasing as their Constitution does, simulating that the warrior has trained his body to better take damage.  But is it really that fun when your 12th level character can get taken out of the game by a 2nd level goblin who has good aim with a crossbow?

There are many aspects of D&D that suspend disbelief, and some that we just can't look past.  But why is that?  Is there a reason that you need to infuse your fantasy roll playing game with so much gritty realism?

Of course, I'm sure you enjoy the minutia of the game, when your combat involves algebra and a  base knowledge of physics.  This simulationist style of game-play may be able to recreate real-world reactions, however I'm not entirely sure how you properly simulate hitting an ork with a chainsword or getting hit by a dragon's tail.

Most of these things that we put into our games to make them more realistic, ultimately just take the fun out of the experience.  When the game gets bogged down with rules, mechanics, and numbers then everything begins to slow to a crawl, and you end up flip-flopping from character to player more times than is necessary.  When you're constantly figuring out what your armor class is, then if the damage is more then your damage reduction, and how many temporary hit points you have as opposed to actual hit points, then calculating if you're at your bloodied value or your staggered amount.  And pulling out a calculator to see how much falling damage you take.  Or creating a table based on an entirely new pool of numbers with seemingly random values just to figure out how long it takes you to make a vial of poison.

At some point, can't we just put down the abacus and get to the gameplay?  RPGs weren't meant to be realistic, because if they were then we'd all be playing Cubicles & Middle Management.



  1. Just a quick note on Armor and "deflection vs. absorption."

    Modern body armor, meant for use against firearms, works by redistributing the impact from a bullet across the entire torso, rather than having it focused on the single point of impact (which is why so much tissue is blown out from an exit wound; all of that force is concentrated on a single point of the body).

    Older armor forms didn't work on this principle. They worked by deflecting blows away from vital areas of the body. This is why the old D&D armor class system made you more difficult to hit with better armor; this is the literal reality of the way these armors worked.

    For example, if you were standing on the battle-field wearing a steel breastplate, and your opponent slams his morning star square into your chest, what do you think would happen if you just stood there and relied on your armor to "absorb" the impact?

    For starters, your armor would cave in. It might crack, sending metal edges into your chest. The force of the impact would probably shatter your ribs, and could possibly send your sternum back into your heart with enough force to stop it dead (a punch to the chest can carry enough force to do this anyway).

    Now, if instead of standing there and expecting to be tough enough to live through a direct hit, you back-step and raise your shield, what might happen?

    The attack may still connect, but it's not going to be a solid hit in most cases. It might glance off of your shield (which doesn't absorb anything if you're using it right, it just knocks the attack away), or it might still strike your armor, but because of the way your armor is crafted the blow will deflect rather than land with all of it's force. You'll probably still be jarred a bit by the strike but the force won't be directed against the armor in full.

    So really, the notion of damage reduction based on armor isn't very realistic for a medieval setting, if anything it resembles video-game physics more than reality.

    1. That is an excellent point, and honestly one that I never really delved into when comparing the two systems on paper. I was more concerned with what the systems meant mechanically rather than logistically, but I know feel ashamed that I didn't do so.

      My thought process came from keeping your head in the game rather than stepping outside to crunch numbers, but also having a real-life perspective for backing up the mechanical decision is excellent.

      Thank you for the input!

  2. D&D isn't a simulationist game, it's true. Trying to add simulationist elements to it is problematic, because they don't fit organically. That said, I think you pretty sharply mischaracterize what purpose-built simulationist sytems are like.

    Look, D&D combat isn't actually that simple. In fact, it's pretty complex. One can discard quite a lot of the sillier fantastical elements, replace them with realistic ones, and still have a game with simpler combat than D&D. NWoD and the Trinity-verse systems are great examples of that. So is GURPS-Lite.

    Also, simulationist doesn't necessarily mean gritty realism. You can have a GURPS-equivalent of a 20th level character that can butcher whole armies of goblins in hand-to-hand combat or level castles with a single spell. The underlying mechanics may be realistic, but that doesn't mean you can't do fantastical things with them. In fact, I'd argue that having realistic underlying mechanics makes accomplishing fantastical stuff somewhat more gratifying.

    1. I'm not arguing that you can have realistic outcomes with a simplistic system. It's when you attempt to produce realistic effects with what you believe are realistic and complex mechanics to support your actions. I am all for performing actions (no matter how realistic or fantastical they may be) with as minimal of a mechanics approach as possible.

      And I'd say that the great thing about GURPS is that it can be as realistic or as fantastical as you'd like it to be. However, I'd say that the elements you're talking about have to do more with the setting of the game you're playing in, rather than the mechanics and system that you're using.