This blog comes as the result of the perpetual debates over the Martial classes, if they should be limited by the boundaries of reality or allowed to be the equivalent of the magical classes; a concern over the level of realism in the game.
This is an interesting question: how much should D&D reflect reality and how much it should stand apart? When should we push for more realism in the game and when should realism give way to gameplay?
Classes like the fighter struggled to find balanced with myriad magical classes.
Players want fighters to have meaningful options and choices, they want their fighter to be able to contribute to combat at any level. Fighters and martial classes shouldn’t be sidekicks to the wizard. However, by removing the limits of reality there’s nothing separating what a fighter does from a wizard, which makes magic less special and more mundane.
Realism in a World of Magic
The typical response to complaints of lacking realism is something along the lines of “you’re okay with people throwing exploding balls of fire or teleporting across the room, but not fighters doing the otherwise impossible?” In this case, the impossible – or improbable – would be examples like pushing massive dragons, tripping slimes, grappling giants, and the like.
The answer is “yes”. I am okay with wizards throwing fireballs but not fighters pushing creatures twice their size. I can handle magic as it is magical, while Martial is not. The definition of the terms is one is defined by its ability to break the laws of reality and one is not. If something is presented as being one thing then they should actually be that thing; selling Martial as “the non-magic” and then letting it do the impossible is a logical bait-and-switch.
Even then, I find “magic” works best when there are rules, when there are limits imposed. Most authors who create a magical system spend more time explaining what the magic can’t do, showing how it works, or having problems magic cannot fix than actually having displays of magic. The limits of magic are what make it interesting.
Realism is important in fantasy. It’s a grounding agent, the shared experiences and background people bring to the world be they readers or players or viewers.
Range of Realism
There’s another term to discuss here, realism itself. The game can never be reality, but is instead a form of narrative reality. To establish the level of reality we want, we have to compare D&D and TRPGs with other forms of narrative reality.
Movies and television are the best examples of narrative realism. One the one end of the spectrum is reality TV, specifically anything that deals with science such as educational programming. By their definition they have to be real. I certainly don’t think D&D needs to have the same level of realism as Mythbusters. Even more scripted reality (Survivor), where scenes are recreated and stories are added or emphasised in the editing room, nothing bordering on improbably or unrealistic can occur.
On the far end of the spectrum are bad action movies. Anything with Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay’s name attached. Cinema where the heroes have unlimited ammo and things so mind-boggling implausible happen that you just laugh. It works because it entertains just enough that you don’t stop to think, which will only cause you to notice the many gaping plot holes or impossibilities.
Die Hard is a good example of something closer to the middle. Not the series, which has become increasingly implausible, but the first movie. You don’t notice the unrealities of the first Die Hard because everything else seems real. The hero seems human and vulnerable and makes sensible decisions.
Moving a little farther down the spectrum towards reality, we leave the realm of most action movies. Grittier shows like Band of Brothers or Game of Thrones retain some elements of action and excitement but are much more grounded in the possible. Kinda. Game of Thrones is actually a really good example of realism blended with fantasy, as the world has dragons and magic and fantastic settings (a giant wall of ice keeping out zombies in a world where there’s winter irregularly every decade or so). Yet the protagonists of A Song of Ice and Fire are not super heroes who are impossible to kill or do anything outside the realm of possibility.
Beneficial or Detracting?
The nature of games means that designers can pick and choose when (and where) to add realism. It’s not a binary exercise where you make a single choice that has to be maintained. Certain areas could be more realistic than others while other mechanics or sub-mechanics could be simpler and streamlined, or the reverse where the base rule is simple but there’s an optional rule offering a nod to realism. It’d be possible to have a skill system bound and limited by the realm of possibility while the combat system is cinematic and exaggerated.
With that in mind, when should realism be ignored and when should it be strived for?
Like any other game element, this depends on whether or not it adds to the game or detracts from the game. Elements that bring people out of the game or are detrimental to fun should not be in the game or their inclusion should be done very carefully. If the majority of players find a rule negatively impacts their play then that rule should be removed, revised, or made less prominent, with an emphasis in salvaging the rule first.
Now, the catch is that a majority might be just over half the players, with a very sizable minority being okay with the rule. Or it could be a very vocal minority that seems like a majority. And “fun” is very, very subjective; what is fun for one group might be the antithesis of fun for another. So change has to be undertaken carefully.
Game elements can also be beneficial or detracting for more than “fun”. It’s not fun dying, but a game that removed death would remove any thrill from victory. When I was young the idea of Monty Haul campaigns with endless loot and mountains of precious treasure was the epitome of fun. But now I prefer games with restrained magic.
Separate but Equal
Here’s the catch: it’s possible for fighters to be balanced without having spells or resources to manage. After all, if both choices become almost identical you’re not made the options equal, you’re really removed the option.
In the so-called “sweet spot” of 3e, fighters and wizards are very similar in power level but play very, very differently. Likewise, in Essentials, the Martial classes lack Daily powers but are mathematically balanced with the other classes in terms of damage.
4e was designed to feel a little like an action movie with dramatic stunts and larger-than-life heroes. So it’s a little closer to the Bruckheimer-Bay end of the spectrum. Which by itself is not a bad thing, if that’s what you want.
But D&D, like most media, should aim somewhere closer to the middle. It doesn’t need to be a reality simulator but neither should it be laughably improbable or break rules of reality known by elementary school students. Especially since play in TRPGs is slower than an action, with players having dead time between turns and actions. It’s harder not to spot the wires in the action shot or wonder at the improbabilities of a power.
Like much else in the game, there should be room for customization. It should be possible for DMs to set their level of realism, ignoring inconvenient rules or using streamlined options (or the reverse).