Thursday, March 6, 2014

How Much Reality do You Like in Your Fantasy?

As much as you want is the answer.  In my games, I like a good dose of reality that reflects in a warp/pseudo image of history.  When you walk into a village you’re going to be greeted with suspicion, but met kindly.  There will be a reeve in charge of getting things done.  There will probably be a woodward and possibly hayward.  Yeoman will be present and I do like to throw in a village militia once in a while, but in general the villagers will have little to no experience with fighting.  They will farm the land, tend to flocks and celebrate festivals.  I don’t get into too much more reality detail, but enough to give the players a sense of grounding.

But this is a fantasy game with spell slingers, big green monster that eat people’s feet and the small gray critters that tear apart crops at night while they villagers sleep.  So, for villagers to survive a world with such thing, they have to be tougher, and maybe a few of the villagers are ex-badasses.  I seem to always slip in an ex-mercenary into a village.  Got tired of the fighting life, met a beautiful girl and settled down.  He keeps his sword wrapped in a blanket, in a locked chest, that he gets out every few months to remember what it felt like to hold it in his hand.

Once in a while I’ll mix in a more magical element.  Maybe there is a mage nearby whose studying the magical properties of poison ivy on snakes with three eyes.  But since he needs food and likes a pint of ale once in a while, he is friendly with the villagers and will help them out once in a while.  Or maybe there is a critter in the forest that has adopted the village.  Maybe a gray renderer.  So when half-orc bandits ride into the village thinking it will be an easy target, the gray renderer opens up a large can of whoop ass on them. 

In my game, it’s important to have a balance.  I like adding in historical details.  Especially since I have an exceptionally intelligent group I game with, they pick up on the details quickly and understand what they mean.  Some of the puzzles or mysteries they encounter will be solved with the knowledge of both knowing the reality (historical) in combination of the fantastic elements. 

Even if you run a gonzo game where nothing is off limits, I think it enhances the game with some reality checks.  Say your land is getting overrun by zombie werewolves who are wearing exo-skeleton they found on a crashed alien spaceship that was shot down by the invisible Illuminati laser.  Add swastikas on the armor and all of a sudden you’ve added another element people will recognize.  Now you have all the above with Nazis added.  Your players are going to grab an extra tactical nuke for their z-28 that has a cassette player with volume knob ripped off at full and plays White Snake songs constantly.  Sign me up!

So reality…it’s what I add to my fantasy, not the other way around.


  1. It is all about suspension of disbelief. Some people have a higher tolerance than others, but that limit can be a factor in what makes a game enjoyable to some and ridiculous to others. A good example is the Walking Dead TV show. I am willing to suspend disbelief about the existence of zombies. One the early mistakes I felt they made was trying to explain it scientifically. Instead of lowering suspension of disbelief it raised it for anyone even vaguely aware of how the human body operates.

    In a game I try to have things make sense and save the suspension of disbelief for what I want to appear miraculous and magical. I want most monstrous creatures to be things that common villagers think are legendary, etc, etc... As the players start exploring into wild-lands or are in more cosmopolitan settings they see and experience more of the wondrous. Some fantastic elements might be more mundane in some campaigns or some locals but I normally try to keep my fantasy somewhat historical or at least in sync with the historical inaccuracies we've all come to know and love from movies and TV.

    Individual DMs should turn the level of suspension of disbelief up or down a notch (or many notches) depending on the taste of their players.

    1. Did they use the term "midi-chlorians"?

  2. I guess it depends on which White Snake song.

    I tend to agree with you. Besides things that are specific tropes of the genre, I tend to like things to make sense. I don't need a lot of detail; it doesn't matter to me whether there is actually sufficient hectares of farmland around this city to feed it, for instance, but just the fact that there are farms or that the city gets its food by other means.

  3. For me, more important than realism as such is consistency. Is the game world consistent with itself? If so, then that's realistic enough for me, and I can buy pretty much anything the GM tells me.

    Also important is the mode of GM-Player communication. What I mean is, before I have my PC attempt to jump across that chasm, I ask the GM: "What does my character estimate his chance of success at?" The GM then tells me what my character imagines his chances of success to be. I don't generally ask "How far is it?" So realism ( far can an armored dwarf jump in the real world?) doesn't become an issue.

    I try to frame things that way as a GM too. I find that measuring the world in character-perceived "chances of success" is a good way to avoid realism problems, which often come from peoples' different perceptions of what actually is realistic.

  4. A game world should be consistent. Not fixed but if A happens under condition B thatks what happens. There should be something that makes sense.

  5. And if it doesn't make sense or appears inconsistent then have an explanation handy!

    Bonus points if you make it (a) interesting and (b) system-relevant.

  6. "Got tired of the fighting life, met a beautiful girl and settled down."

    Hmm, little bit of an autobiographical element in your storytelling?

  7. A bit of what Neal Stephenson would term the Forces of Brightness vs. the Earthtone Coalition in his novel Reamde.

  8. Like Chris C. said, I try to focus on consistency. Doses or touches of reality are nice but only if I can pull from the common knowledge and experience of my players. If I pull out the title of reeve, yeoman, or woodward I would be met with blank stares since no one I play with has any real knowledge of medieval Western European society. I always have to keep in mind my players' common knowledge and not mine.

    Along the lines of consistency I also try to incorporate and account for the implications of the game system itself. What is the impact of arcane and divine magic on the world and society? If there is a dragon, why isn't it running things? Thinking some of these things through helps me to provide intelligent responses on the part of NPCs to the actions of my players.