Realism and Verisimilitude in D&D

Happy New Year! Every year, for the month of January, I write a series of articles about Dungeons & Dragons that explores a specific topic. I’ve gone through writing adventures, creating NPCs, Multiclassing, and more. This year, we are going to talk about the realism of D&D, whether or not it’s a good thing, and how to connect to these fantasy worlds.

But first, what is Realism and Verisimilitude?

Realism

Realism, as I’m sure you can assume, is the attempt to make the fictional world and game mechanics more realistic. This game was built where the whole game was 4 steps, repeated in a never ending cycle.

  1. Arrive at Dungeon
  2. Kill Monsters In Dungeon
  3. Collect Monster Loot
  4. Use Loot to Kill Bigger Monsters
How to Create a Treasure Hoard in D&D 5e - Dungeon Solvers

However, throughout the decades of play, it has expanded to a completely secondary world, where you are often expected to treat your PC as a real person, with Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, Flaws, and more. With this, people have come to want their PC to be more realistic, as well as the challenges they face. When they do so, the biggest complaints come down to the 6-second turn in combat, Hit Points as a representation for health, and healing speeds.

In 5e, this is usually one thing, Gritty Realism. The rules has a Rest Variant called Gritty Realism, where a Short Rest is 8 hours, instead of 1, and a Long Rest is 7 days, instead of 8 hours. The idea here is primarily because in the real world, it takes more time for our bodies to rest and heal after intense fights. Can you imagine if professional boxers got into the ring every single night of the week? It would be too much, and they’d probably die. Also, by slowing down the healing process, it encourages your party to get more involved in non-combat situations, like local politics and roleplay with NPCs. The Gritty in Gritty Realism has also expanded into Homebrew rules like those in the Darkest Dungeon category, which is based on a video game, but people have used it to make D&D harder and more honest to what being a person, fighting monsters, in the wild, would actually be like.

D&D 5e Grit and Glory - JC Flip PDF | AnyFlip

However, in Dragon Magazine #16, Gary Gygax (creator of D&D and TtRPGs) wrote a piece called “Role-Playing: Realism vs. Game Logic; Spell Points, Vanity Press and Rip-offs” in which he is surprised and disappointed with people’s desire for realism in this game. I will say, Gygax’s word is not law just because he founded the game. This piece was written 43 years ago, and the opinions of the game at that time are widely ignored for either being unfun, or downright problematic. There are some interesting snippets (far from complete) that you might like to see from the “Sorcerer’s Scroll” (the name of Gygax’s column).

To my mind, a game which provides ample fun and enjoyment is good, and if it brings endless hours of amusement and diversion it is proportionately better.

Interestingly, most of the variant [rules] which purport to “improve” the game are presented under the banner of realism.

“Realism” has become a bugaboo in the hobby, and all too many of the publishers…make offerings to this god too frequently.

Therefore, those who desire realism in wargames, or simulations of social or political events, or racing, or anything else used as subject material for a game should go and do the actual thing — join the military, enter politics, become a race car driver, and so on.

Therefore, the absurdity of a cry for “realism” in a pure fantasy game seems so evident that I am overwhelmed when such confronts me. Yet, there are those persistent few who keep demanding it.

Realism in such a game can only be judged by the participants acceptance of the fantasy milieu invoked by the game. If this make-believe world is widely and readily accepted, if players fully agree to suspend their disbelief when playing it, the game has reality for them.

D&D is a make-believe game.

I believe, to an extent, that he’s right. The goal of “Realism” is a bad one. We come to these games not because they are real, but because they aren’t. “But Sean,” I hear you say “I want to feel invested in the game, and feeling real does that for me.” Once again, I agree. This is why we are going to slightly shift our goals and expectations from “Realism” to “Verisimilitude”.

P.S. Gygax also liked for treasure to be all in copper pieces, and the players have to figure out how they were going to carry it all back to town, so again, keep in mind the context of his statements.

Verisimilitude

  1. the appearance of being true or real.
  2. the quality or state of being verisimilar, or having the appearance of truth
Realism? Who needs it? You do! | Gnome Stew

That’s right, instead of actually being realistic, it only needs to appear, or feel true. When it comes to some of the most popular fantasy films of nerdd culture, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, they are filled with unrealistic aspects. Where does the artificial gravity in the Millenium Falcon come from? How does Hobbiton survive on a few gardens and farms, without any seeming economy? Why does Molly Weasley have magical brushes to scrub her dishes, instead of magically making the dishes clean instantly? There are a dozen examples in each of these settings that are unrealistic, and yet we have all, at some point, imagined ourselves living there, because it feels real. That is the goal of Verisimilitude in your game.

So the question the becomes, What does it take for your table to feel like this world is real? For each table, and in fact each campaign, that question has a different answer.

Does the realism come from interpersonal conversations, having fleshed out NPCs that will react in unexpected, but honest ways to the Players actions? Does it come from dungeons that have layouts that would track with the purpose of it’s architect, as opposed to different monster fights and puzzle encounters? Does it come from weapons having durability, ammo running out, using spell material components?

To encumber or not to encumber... : r/DnD

While all of these things will make the game feel more and more real, at a certain point it will do so in sacrifice of the fun. Your players (probably) don’t come to the table for inventory management and uninteresting hikes through the mountains. So try to find the sweet spot between the fun and the realistic. That spot, where you are invested, and it feels real enough, that should be your goal.

This can be tough, because again, it’s different for every table, in every campaign. Sometimes a decision will be made about the world around you, and you’ll realize quickly that while it might be more realistic, it is sacrificing your fun, and you need to retcon (a piece of new information that imposes a different interpretation on previously described events, typically used to account for an inconsistency.) In my current game in Eberron, we were keeping track of time, and realized the amount of time it takes to walk from one city to another on that map took so much time, that after 4 levels of play, I shrunk the entire map to less than half it’s original size, so it wouldn’t be such a slog getting from place to place. It took my players out of the realism of the secondary world for about 10 minutes, but as we settled into the new scale, it still felt just as real, as it did before, and it was more fun to be in. However, we did continue to track days, weeks, and months, because that added to a level of realism for us.

In my next game, I’m going to focus on inventory management and speed of healing, but I’m going to sacrifice political realism and spatial reality, in a way that will make it feel real, but a different kind of real.

Find what parts of reality you can add to your game, that does not sacrifice the ultimate point of playing a game, Fun. There you will find Verisimilitude.

What bits of realism do you add to your game that makes it more fun? Let me know in the comments below!

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