... now with 35% more arrogance!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Realism War

Hoist high the flag! We've declared war on realism in a fantasy game! Again!

Noisms has a post about the absurdity of trying to be realistic in a fantasy game. The argument goes: why look to medieval documents for details of medieval economics or practices when medieval Europe didn't have dragons, elves, goblins or magic? Any of these, had they been real, would have changed the way people did things. The example given is the way cattle or sheep are managed; if dragons or griffons existed, farmers wouldn't have kept their animals in uncovered pastures.

Except, of course, that medieval Europeans *did* believe in all those things. So why didn't that affect the way they did things?

The problem, here, is that there's a disconnect between how D&D (or other fantasy games) portray magic and fantastic creatures and how medieval people thought about magic and fantastic creatures. Fantastic creatures were believed to be extremely rare, sometimes even unique. There weren't flocks of gryphons or herds of unicorn; generally, there was only one in a very large area, perhaps only one in the entire world. And they often didn't seem to obey biology. We often worry about the ecology of fantastic monsters (that gryphon needs something to eat,) but medieval descriptions seem to suggest that these creatures eat only out of spite, not necessity.

And that leads to something important: it's not the attempt to inject realism into a game that is absurd, but the fetishism of realism and application of a scientific world-view to a fantasy game.

There's actually a good reason to look at things like the Domesday Book: to find a frame of reference. The GM and the players generally have a good idea about things like how fire works, how climbing works, how throwing things work, and other basic actions. Not a thorough knowledge, as a physicist or mountaineer or champion knife thrower might have, but enough to come up with plans like "let's tie a spike to the end of this rope and throw it like a grappling hook." We have a frame of reference. Some other things, we don't have a frame of reference for. Most of us are city people and don't farm, or at least never farmed in the Middle Ages; we don't know what they might own, or how they do things. The same applies to castles, medieval trade, and many other things.

So, we might read up on some topics to get a better grasp of what things would look like. And we might run numbers -- not during play, of course, unless we're obsessive idiots -- to get a better feel of what the population might look like or what items might be in a treasure trove.

The problem is that some of us *are* obsessive idiots, and fetishize the numbers. We -- and by "we", I mean "not me" -- get bent out of shape at the idea of the details not working out right, of there not being enough sheep to support both the local population and the occasional dragon-raid. And so, we bog the game down with tedious number-crunching and arguments about how much a dragon would realistically consume. I believe that's what Noisms is really complaining about; not the act of comparing our fantasy to a real-world example, but the madness that causes some people to forget what we're playing the game for.


  1. I agree. Looking to the past to inform your game is a good thing, because for the most part gamers have no concept of life in the dark or middle ages, and no concept of what it was like for the common person in any era (possibly extending even unto the current era).

    This lack of knowledge can be seen in the "dungeon punk" of modern D&D-esque games, where everyone is healthy, wealthy, and middle class, and armor is just for kicks.

  2. I agree, for the most part.

    But as far as I see, there are quite a lot of people who enjoy crunshing numbers and scientify a fantasy setting that way. And that's really totally OK with me, I actually enjoy reading this posts as well. As long as they don't make this to a default assumption about "wrong" or "right" campaign building or something - and this goes both ways.

  3. It would be near impossible for me, in my home brewed campaign to use science to justify anything in it. Ganth is High Magic at it's core, and to try to explain how or why to anything fantastic in Ganth would end in great folly.

    When someone asks, "How is that possible?" in a Ganth camapign, the first answer is always, "Magic."