Realism vs Fun

It snowed today. Maybe you heard; the East Coast got hammered with a blizzard that buried much of the area in snow. I left work early, and I just spent an hour shoveling it.

And that’s when I got to thinking about how much I dislike certain aspects of “realism” in games. Take environmental hazards for example: There have been many, many reams of rules printed about such matters. Rules for travelling through snow, through the jungle, through the desert, across the ocean, and so on. And I have the same two problems with most of these rules: They punish bad dice rolls severely, and they don’t add to the enjoyment or storytelling potential of the game. In some cases, it’s possible that even a well-prepared party can be nearly wiped out by a snowstorm before they reach their destination.

I’m used to the common response: “But that’s what would HAPPEN!” I will not attempt to refute the truth of this statement, save to say that more expeditions end safely rather than in disaster, and instead say…

Yeah, so?

So what if real-world expeditions have the chance of mishap? So what if people are affected by fatigue, dehydration, frostbite, heat stroke, illness, disease, injury and so on. The question I have to ask is, does this improve the quality of storytelling? Is overcoming this FUN?

In my experience, the answer to these questions has been a resounding “No.” Disabling or outright destroying the party with no real chance of recovery is not fun. “Great, we all died of exposure,” is not the kind of thing you want to hear your players say. Certainly, the common response of “But that’s realistic!” is the last thing they want to hear. (In case you were wondering, no, I’m not overly interested in post-apocalyptic games…)

See, that’s where I think a lot of people go horribly wrong. They focus on RPGs as a storytelling medium, perhaps forgetting that, technically, the Game Master is NOT the one telling the story. Yes, he provides the backdrops, he plays the townsfolk and shopkeepers, he places the monsters. But he is not the one telling the story. That is often down to the players, whose characters navigate the webs the GM has weaved, and through their actions, define what is really happening.

Far too many GMs in my travels have put “telling a story” above “having fun.” They create environments of unyielding misery and woe, inflicting despair and depression upon the players, all the while claiming it’s either “building up” to something, or, perhaps more frustratingly, that it’s “more dramatic” that way.

People claim that Dungeon & Dragon’s hit points are grossly unrealistic, considering that “wound levels” are never taken into account: A character has only two real conditions; either he is alive and fighting, or he is unconscious and most likely bleeding to death. To which I again say, “Yeah, so?” The alternatives I’ve seen are unpalatable: Levels of increasingly damaged states and thus increasingly limited performance. Again, is the GM rolls really well, or the player rolls really badly, a character can be reduced to uselessness- or chunks of bloody meat- in a very short period of time.

Again, all for the sake of “realism.” I have never seen wound levels done well, though I’ve been told Legend of the Five Rings does a good job of it. Then again, I’ve been told the same of the Storyteller system, and I can only disagree whole-heartedly there.

Of course, my idea of “fun” may not be the same as everyone else’s. My group has made it a running joke/point of honor that most encounters I plan for them get reduced to chaos within three combat rounds, when one of my players- usually Burns or Chris, I’ll introduce you later- exploits some unseen flaw in my brilliant strategy, resulting in everything falling apart and everyone laughing their asses off, including me. I’ve had players create makeshift catapults, use explosives in the most peculiar ways, and even convince dragons to join them.

This is what I play the game for. I usually gloss over the ugly “reality,” because I’ve never found keeping track of ammunition, rations and the like to be enjoyable. I generally found it to distract one from immersion.

Or, to put it another way, as it is written in Teenagers From Outer Space; “TFOS characters cannot die. If they could, their players would be less tempted to do stupid things with them.” While I don’t do anything THAT absurd, I definitely encourage people to be epic. We are playing Dungeons & Dragons, after all.

Stay warm, everybody, and don’t break your back shoveling. And to any of my readers on the West Coast who didn’t get any snow today… Damn you. Damn your eyes, all of you.

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