There is a claim that it is silly to appeal to realism in a fantasy role-playing game where there are elves and dragons.
Designers who say “realism” in games is garbage don’t actually believe that.
Every role-playing game has some degree of “realism” that varies depending on the game and what the experience the players of that game want to have.
Who is it for? What is it for?
A game for the National Security Council thinking out strategies against a nuclear armed adversary is different than a game for a group of 14 year olds hanging out with their friends.
Militaries and think tanks run games that are as real as can be conceived. These are serious games. The games are simulations that model the possible outcomes of real world decisions. If the game doesn’t model reality closely enough, then that could result in disastrous decision making when an actual event occurs. If the designer assumes an anti-ballistic missile system is more effective than it actually is, a leader who had used those systems as part of their strategy in a simulation may make a lethal error in real life.
Games can be training tools but only if they are realistic.
Strategos N, the game rules that Dave Wesley and Dave Arneson used for their Napoleonic wargames, was derived from one such training tool. Dave Wesley found Strategos by Charles Totten in the university library and used it to build a variant for his wargame club. The purpose Totten had in mind was deadly serious. It was the purpose of training Army officers to make sound decisions in the chaotic environment of a battle. Having a model built on reality was paramount.
Realism was one of objectives that Arneson and Wesley had in mind when they adapted Totten’s wargame to their Napoleonic miniatures games. They wanted to achieve a greater degree of realism than the wargames they had been playing. They found this to be a desirable feature of the game. However, they didn’t go so far down the road toward simulation that the game wasn’t fun to play. This balance between realism and game play has always been a tension in the design of role-playing games.
Arneson’s Blackmoor did not have a complex and exhaustive set of rules. We know this because he mailed Gary 18 pages of notes that were mostly handwritten when they started working on Dungeons and Dragons. Arneson found a sweet spot where there was enough “realism” that his players bought into it but enough “fantasy” that their imaginations were spurred to creation. The ratio of reality to fantasy is going to be different for different people.
Many of the wargamers during the early days of Dungeons and Dragons hated the fantasy elements. Even before D&D, the fantasy portion of the Chainmail rules were disparaged by letter writers to various wargame ‘zines about how that was all nonsense and should be discarded without further thought. Though I do not have verification; I have heard Jeff Perren didn’t like the fantasy elements and he was co-author of the rules!
There is a broad range of how much realism can drive play and how much it is minimized. It depends on what you want to play.
One game where “reality” is mostly suspended is Amber Diceless Roleplay. The players and game master are able to do almost anything they they can imagine. This makes the game very challenging to play and to run.
In the setting of the novels and game; the only “real” place in the multiverse is Amber. Everything else is a shadow of Amber. Anything you imagine and any place you can imagine exists. If you have “walked the Pattern,” you are able to shift and manipulate shadow to find the place where time passes fifty years for every year in Amber. You can find the shadow where you are a god worshiped by all who live in the shadow. You can find the shadow where the greatest swordsman to ever live will teach you their skills. If you can imagine it, it exists in shadow. But it isn’t real. Only Amber is real.
Games must have some “reality” to work.
For a game to work, there must be rules the players of that game agree to abide by. Those rules are generally going to be based on a shared mental model of “reality” plus fantastical elements which make the game experience contrast with our lived experience. If we toss out “realism” because there are elves and dragons then the game would not function.
If you insist that “realism” isn’t something you want then when we play together, my quiver has infinite arrows, my gun never jams and I can flap my arms and fly to San Francisco. Bang! Your dead! I never miss. Obviously, such a game would quickly devolve into something nonsensical and unenjoyable. People who say “realism” doesn’t apply to fantasy games don’t actually believe that.
If there is no “realism” in a game then how exactly is any conflict in the game resolved? Is it built entirely on dream logic? Narrative causality? What?
A flat rejection of “realism” is no more functional than trying to create a perfect simulation.
Rejecting reality out of hand because, “dragons” is not at all useful. Let’s be more subtle and nuanced than that. It is, I think, reasonable to claim that in a hobby game for the purposes of entertainment that “realism” is not our highest priority. However, we cannot completely disregard it and design something that will be enjoyable to play. It is a spectrum and where a game falls on that spectrum will depend on the players and the experience they want to have.
How much “realism” to include in your game is going to be different for different people. It’s going to be different for different games and different campaigns.
Even within a game with a high degree of fantastic elements there will need to be some elements of reality. The Dark Sun campaign setting has god-like sorcerer kings attempting to become dragons, a myriad of monsters and cannibal halflings. At the same time, your character needs to have a gallon of water per day of travel in the desert or they are going to die of heat stroke. Why? Can’t we just ignore that?
Because the experience the designers were going for was to make Athas itself a dangerous obstacle to the players. Reality provides a rule that we are all familiar with and agree on. We all know that if a human being goes into the desert without water or the means to acquire it, they will die. Any sane person with common knowledge knows this and agrees that it is reality. The concept underlying the rule is based on our understanding of reality.
The designers could have decided to make it a “unit” of water or some other abstract mechanism to make tracking easy. That your character needs water at all and has to plan for it is a bit of reality in the game. The DM could ignore the survival rules in Dark Sun but that would fundamentally change the experience of the game and its themes. It might be the experience that the DM and the players in that group want to have. It would not be the experience that a lot of other groups prefer.
The experience of Dark Sun is reliant on the environmental destruction caused by the profligate use of magic. If the players didn’t have to deal with resource management then this very important thematic element of the setting would be nullified.
In Dungeons and Dragons there are a number of rules that acknowledge some degree of reality. It’s not stated explicitly but implied. Missile weapons have a range which takes into account the effects of gravity. The arrow will only travel a certain distance before gravity pulls it to the ground. At the same time, the designers didn’t go absurdly into the weeds with complex ballistics tables. The game doesn’t take into account what material the arrows are made of, if the archer has tuned the arrows, or if they have performed proper maintenance of the string and limbs.
How much realism you want in your game and what elements of the game you want that realism to apply to comes down to what the players of the game want their game experience to be like.
What kind of game do you want to play?
If you are playing an art-punk, avant garde, dream world game, then realism may distract from the object of the game. If you are playing something grim and gritty; more “realism” is going to bring you closer to the feel you are looking for.