How Important is Realism in Fantasy?

When I was a young DM, I used to enjoy making dungeons based entirely out of cool encounters, regardless of any kind of sensibility or realism. Dungeons existed only for the players to explore and loot, and any reason why things were the way they were - if such a thing existed - was just an excuse. It turns out that back in “classic” AD&D this was a lot more common, as I found when I ran the third edtition conversion of Tomb of Horrors.

It’s common to say “in fantasy, all realism goes out the window”, and to some lesser extent that’s true. Magic, the most basic element of fantasy, defies realism. However, in so far as we accept the fantasy world, it can be realistic in terms of itself, in other words, it must be internally consistent even if it’s not consistent with the real world. In that sense, a world can be “realistic” while still being fantasy if we qualify it by saying “realistic, in so far as we accept the tenets of a fantasy world”.

A wizard, in a D&D game or even a fantasy novel, is therefore realistic. A wizard casting magic missile in D&D is realistic; a farmer casting magic missile is not unless he has some exceptional reason to be able to (e.g., he’s actually a sorcerer, he’s had spellcasting ability magically bestowed on him, etc). D&D can be a lot of fun if we throw realism out the window, but it can also be a lot more interesting and satisfying to imagine the world as internally realistic. Indeed, the detailed rules of the game actually help when it comes to keeping a game in this realistic form.

In order to have “D&D realism” we have to accept the game rules as reflecting the truth of the game world and work from there. The player characters are unreasonably powerful and tough compared to common folk; that’s still realistic in this game, if not true to the real world. Arcane magic and divine magic exist, as do every monster in the Monster Manual, unless of course the DM wants to omit some, which importantly reflects the DM’s choice in his own world, or the DM wants to ignore some for the time being because they aren’t relevant, which reflects the DM’s right not to bog himself down with unnecessary work.

I’m perhaps rambling here. The value of making a world internally consistent and reflecting that in what the players experience is that they can rely on your game world to some extent, which gives them stability, while letting them experience something that Monte Cook likes to talk about a lot, verisimilitude. Despite being a complete fantasy, the game world is at least consistent and you can rely on that, you can trust that as a player. It’s much like old platform games which, while unrealistic and cartoony, at least were internally consistent - falling on spikes kills you, touching enemies hurts you, and so on. I need to do more thinking on this but I think that internal consistency is an important attribute of a game that applies especially to Dungeons & Dragons.

Comments (1)

Harv (October 25th, 2009)

I have a theory on this. It originally applied to SF, but is just as relevant to fantasy. We play fantasy games, immerse ourselves in them to experience/imagine what it is like to live in a world like that, to do those heroic deeds, to wield mystical powers. Only problem is, we’re not that good - as humans - at judging what is likely, appropriate, or reasonable for the world to contain. We don’t even have that good a grasp on real life, let alone a game world that we inhabit only rarely. What we are good at, and have evolved to be good at, is judging other people - their motivations, reactions, moods and capabilities. We can often even take a pretty good guess at what they think about themselves, how they view their own place in the world. So when something amazing or incredible happens in-game, we don’t even try to judge the event. Yes, it needs internal consistency, but what really sells it to your audience, be they players, readers, or the viewers at home, is the (N)PC’s reaction to it. We base our judgement on their perceived judgement. If they buy it, so do we.

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