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Nod To Realism
Legends and Lore
Monte Cook

M any people look at Dungeons & Dragons as a simulation. Certainly, the roots of the game lie in simulation. The game distinguishes between the damage a sword does from a spear, for example. In various incarnations, it has tried to distinguish the speed of a warhorse from a riding horse, describe how long it would take to dig out a 10 by 10 room filled with rubble, and calculate how often an intelligent foe strikes at a foe's head as opposed to the rest of his body. But when people talk about "realism" in D&D, I always mentally put those quotation marks around the word, because ultimately, D&D isn't very realistic. Instead, when possible, it makes attempts at pleasing people interested in realistic simulation without slowing down the game or making things too cumbersome. (It has, at times, failed at this, but it's succeeded far more often.)

These occasional attempts are usually referred to as "nods to realism." I've been thinking about that, and really, that phrase sums up the entire game pretty well. The game is a heavy helping of fantasy that also offers a nod to realism. Growing out of historical wargames, with their heavy dose of simulation, the game layered in a great deal of magic, monsters, and other fantasy elements. But even then, it retained a lot of historical "realism." With the transition from OD&D, the nods to realism increased. We got detailed lists of polearm types, diseases, and even government types for Dungeon Masters to use while building their campaign worlds. Not to mention weapon speed factors and the "Weapon versus Armor" table. From that point on, the levels of simulation rose and fell as the game developed, but there's no denying that a nod to realism is clearly something that a significant number of players over the years have felt was important. But how much realism is too much? How much is enough?

It might be an even more complex question than just that. Take, for example, hit points. The concept of hit points has remained more or less constant throughout the life of the game. It's a key element—certainly something that makes D&D the game that it is and always has been. At various times, the game has tried to provide explanations for what hit points represented and why characters gain more as they gain experience, and why a 10th-level fighter can jump off a 50-foot-high ledge and survive while a 1st-level character could not. Over the years, players have developed their own justifications that suit their own views of the game and the extent to which fantasy intrudes upon reality and vice versa (and the players who don't care about such things have ignored it, by and large).

Perhaps the fact that individual players come up with their own justifications—their own nods to realism—is in fact the very strength of the concept. You and I might look at hit points differently (and in fact, you might care about the explanation a lot, while it might not matter to me at all), and that's OK. Because the game doesn't get too far into the realm of simulation with a system that forces people to suffer penalties from broken bones and track every little bruise, it remains flexible enough to encompass both your explanation for hit points and my lack of one.

All of this means that designing for D&D is tricky when it comes to determining the extent to which simulation hurts game play. There's the nod to reality that the game provides, and then there's providing room for the players' own nods.

Understanding where the current audience (as opposed to say, the 1974 audience, or the 2000 audience) stands when it comes to how much of a nod to reality is enough is something that's really important to me. I hope you'll answer this week's poll questions and let me know.

This Week's Polls

Poll: On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being "not at all" and 5 being "very much," I agree with the following statements about D&D rules:

 I need to feel that the situations created in the game are realistic.  
1
2
3
4
5

 I need to be able to at least justify the rules in the game as being realistic.  
1
2
3
4
5

 I don't want the game to provide rationales for everything. I want to do it myself sometimes.  
1
2
3
4
5

 I ignore or change rules that don't feel realistic.  
1
2
3
4
5

 Too much time spent making everything seem realistic wastes game time.  
1
2
3
4
5

Last Week's Polls

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being "not at all" and 5 being "very much," I agree with the following statements about D&D rules:

The DM is better at handling some situations than the rules.
1 42 2.0%
2 65 3.1%
3 236 11.1%
4 571 26.9%
5 1205 56.9%
Total 2119 100.0%

The rules are better at handling some situations than the DM.
1 107 5.0%
2 263 12.4%
3 554 26.1%
4 517 24.4%
5 682 32.1%
Total 2123 100.0%

The game should make room for the DM to make real decisions.
1 44 2.1%
2 98 4.7%
3 377 18.0%
4 559 26.7%
5 1017 48.5%
Total 2095 100.0%

The game should make things as easy as possible for the DM.
1 24 1.1%
2 84 4.0%
3 411 19.5%
4 590 28.0%
5 999 47.4%
Total 2108 100.0%

My DM is awesome.
1 57 2.9%
2 70 3.5%
3 381 19.1%
4 388 19.4%
5 1099 55.1%
Total 1995 100.0%

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