No form of entertainment is entirely realistic. Movies, video games, books, and pretty much any other form of media cut a lot of corners when portraying the world. If they didn’t, they would be bogged down with boring minutia and detail. However, a lot of gamers like the complexity and detail of  “realistic” gaming. Without the challenged presented by these small challenges a tabletop game might not feel any different from a video game, to some people.  Here are 5 places where gaming will never beat the reality test:

1. Inventory and Carrying
The amount of things your character carries is waaaaay out of proportion. The USMC ILBe carries up to 120 lbs. While a character could definitely carry that much weight anyone who has been in the military or packed for an extended hike can tell you that an efficient packing and weight distribution system is necessary. Let’s take a quick look at a basic adventurers equipment layout.

Backpack (empty)     2 lb.
Bedroll                         5 lb.
Lantern, bullseye      3 lb.
Pot, iron                      10 lb.
Rations, trail              1 lb. (1 week, 7 lbs.)
Rope, silk (50 ft.)      5 lb.
Torch                          1 lb.
Waterskin                  4 lb.
Traveler’s outfit         5 lb.

Total = 42 lbs

According to the D20 SRD, this would be within the light load limit for a character with a strength of 12.  This is a pretty sparse loadout for a person traversing the wilderness and dungeon for weeks on end.  Without the Iron Pot (10 lbs) cooking anything you found along the way would be somewhat hard. Leaving it out drops the load to 32 lbs, but we haven’t factored in armor or weapons, let alone loot, treasure, or the specialized equipment for any of the classes.

2. Damage and Healing
A character takes a slash across the chest and gets d8 +4 hit points worth of damage (to keep going with the D&D 3.5 examples). The character takes 9 hit points worth of damage total, they then proceed to make their attack and deal an amount of damage to the opponent. The opponent makes their attack, etc. until one of them dies. This is, quite frankly, a ridiculous scenario. When hit points represent the physical level of health for a character, then damage, if realistically taken, would be crippling. At lower levels it can be deadly, but the actual damage itself is abstract. If you were to take 9 hit points away from a 30 hit point character, the would would be fairly massive. When people take massive wounds in real life they tend to be put out of commission for a bit.

Aside from the unreality of taking damage, healing it back without magical means or care is a very unrealistic thing in games. According to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act of 1997, there are standard healing times (with appropriate care) for the various types of injuries.

Soft tissue injures                 3 Months
(Cuts, Stabs, Non Muscle Compromising)
Fractures (Not Breaks)        3 – 6 Months (Depending on Location)
Nervous system injuries     3 – 12 months  
Tendon Repair                       3 Months
(With appropriate care)

Those times are with appropriate, modern healthcare, not something that is likely to be available in fantasy gaming worlds, and not something that is likely to be found in a dungeon or camp-side.

3. Adventuring is dirty
People in the middle ages faced some pretty serious diseases and were not ones for cleanliness. Even taking into account fantasy elements and pretending there is a semi-clean society, your adventurer isn’t part of it. Travelling from town to town, fighting in the woods, exploring dungeons, being in the vicinity of sqwicking and exploding orcs are all things your adventurer (in a standard fantasy world) will get be getting dirty from. This is a level of dirty beyond even the grimiest peasant, and the grimy peasants at least have constant access to some sort of water where they might be able to take a cold, unheated bath.

Fantasy gaming isn’t the only offender in the cleanliness category. Sci-fi and modern gaming often have the player characters facing a slew of grimy settings and disgusting creatures. Even when this isn’t the case, the activities that any self respecting group will come across are likely to get them quite grime covered or at least sweaty. Showers and bathing are more common in modern and sci-fi settings, but there is probably not a lot of access to them while breaking out of the enemy base or trudging in the sewers to find the monstrous creature that is hiding there.

4. Dungeons
Ever been inside an abandoned building? Ever walked in a catacombs or cave? Ever been in a non-tourist capacity and off the path? Ever tried to climb or spelunk and found you couldn’t get through that one crevasse, that your squeeze gets you stuck for 15 minutes as you try to wriggle back before the panic takes hold.  Ever think about methane buildup in an abandoned building and how that torch would actually work in the environment.

Try to think about traversing all these minor obstacles with just your sword or weapon tied to your back. Now your 42 lb. pack (pre looting). Now think about getting back out. In almost every common adventuring situation that I can think of, the terrain is going to work against you if it were realistic. Caves are awesome places, full of incredible scenery formed by the slow flow of water over unfathomable amounts of time. They are nothing like the linear cave maps with halls that are usually at least 5 ft width. Even when looking at dungeons that are created with clear intent and modern architectural design, reality has very little leeway. The layout and design of most gaming dungeons has nowhere near the number of support rooms and facilities to accommodate the inhabitants, nor is it built in a way that is even remotely useful to the residents.

Let’s not even get started on the ecology of a dungeon and what would be needed to sustain enough creatures to make challenging encounters.

5. Bathroom breaks
There is only one thing to mention on this subject. Adventures must shit in corners, near where they sleep, a lot. That wizard’s eight hour break to memorize spells isn’t going to be done out in the monster infested corridor, but likely in a closed off room or barricaded area. No one is going to go wandering alone outside to make use of the facilities, especially when keen-nosed creatures might pick up on the scent. For more modern scenarios, do you think the mech your character is tied into has a catheter?


Ok. I will fully admit that I am being incredibly harsh. I’ve been an utter git and played devil’s advocate for the sake of the theme.  Let me emphasize the point of this article: Gaming is incredibly fun because it doesn’t take into account realism. Gaming is an allegory and a chance for us to live out heroic archetypes that modern society, for the most part,  doesn’t afford us the opportunity to be.

It’s great to tramp through a complex dungeon as a heroic character without worrying too much about how much we are carrying. I love being able to play the barbarian who looks like a porcupine because of the number of arrows sticking out of him.  It’s fun to play out the story and build the interesting personality of  the sneaky thief who rides on the fringes of society and is a likeable ruffian. If I had to worry too much about the realism of any part of the game, I would become bored quickly. 

This isn’t too say that realism doesn’t have its place in a game. How much realism is present should be up to your group and play style, but no matter how deep into realism you take your game you will never get all the way. So how much realism do you like in your game? This was just a quick list of some of the things that don’t pass the reality test, what other gaming tropes can you think of that don’t pass the reality test? Does lack of realism bug you in some situations?

16 replies
  1. Horza
    Horza says:

    This is so true. I ran a 4e Campaign some time ago where firebeetles were one of the common enemies; they were in the crypt of an old dwarf-king in a desert, so I figured it would only make sense.

    Well, after about three or four encounters, we started to realize nearly every one of them should be scorched, their clothes would be half-burnt and they would all be bald. I don’t really know if that’s going to happen if a small insect spews fire on you, but one of the players, a cleric of Pelor I believe, became convinced he was an avatar of the God when he spent nearly every round of combat ablaze as he consistently failed every single roll to put the fires out.

    That, and the fact that they had to rest after about every second or third encounter (that was my bad, I’d made it a wee bit too difficult, but it was my first campaign), meant they were going to be burnt, smell like an outhouse and most likely have at least grown a very decent stubble by the time they reached the final resting place of the dwarf king.

    One of the players even rolled with it and went and bought himself a fancy turban when they came back to town.

  2. rwenderlich
    rwenderlich says:

    Another common point of unrealism, at least in the campaigns I’ve been in: eating. How often does your group stop in the middle of an adventure to eat lunch?

    I suppose the whole point of RPGs though is to get through the mundane aspects of life to where the fun drama and conflict is though, much like how in TV shows they rarely focus on what people do day-to-day at work…

  3. Rafe
    Rafe says:

    As noted, 2. Damage and Healing is definitely a d20 thing, and not a generic gaming issue. In fact, most gaming systems have reasonable (if not realistic) takes on damage, injury and recovery.

    Burning Wheel, for instance, handles combat and injury quite well, and it can be brutal. He who draws first blood usually wins. A character in our game took a light wound and a midi wound (aka, a moderate wound, which is -2D to every ability, and the light is -1D).

    His recovery time for the light wound was 3 weeks, with 8 weeks for the midi. During that time, any abilities reduced to 0 could not be used — that would be most of his non-combat skills, with his combat skills now at about a raw recruit’s level. Additionally, if a mental stat is reduced to 0, you’re unconscious for however long it takes to recover the dice you need to return to consciousness. If a physical stat is reduced to 0, you are incapable of moving yourself unaided and will have to be carried.

    So my point here is that I mostly agree with your premise that realism does not necessarily equate to fun, but it certainly can! Personally, I prefer a gritty system (system, not necessarily setting) when I game.

  4. OrangeYngvi
    OrangeYngvi says:

    As for the mechs… Yeah, I would think they would have a catheter. Or at least a large diaper. The astronauts wear one when they launch into space, after all.

  5. Tyson J. Hayes
    Tyson J. Hayes says:

    So for me I’m OK with a game not being that realistic. Do I really want to be rolling to see how often the characters need to go to the bathroom? I’m doing some escapism! Screw that noise!

    Has anyone also calculated how fast most people move in D&D? Everyone runs a five minute mile. The monk at really high levels gets into a three minute mile. I know they are supposed to be fast but there is a point of ridiculousness.

    Good article though, just reminds me why I don’t get that nitpicky about this stuff.

  6. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    It all depends on the game. A low level [or, even more so, old school] D&D or other fantasy game tends to concentrate more on carefully choosing gear, fighting only with overwhelming advantage, etc. That can be a lot of fun.

    It’s also fun to ignore those things and concentrate on the exciting battles. GMs often facilitate the shift, by hand waving encumbrance or handing out a bag of holding… that’s a clear sign that copper counting and weight distribution is no longer going to be a big issue. [Well, until you try to carry out the gold painted sofa…]

  7. Havukin
    Havukin says:

    I need to somewhat disagree with this article. It seems to assume D&D or similar fantasy game (apart form couple of mentions of other settings). In modern settings these thing are rarely taken into account but doing so would not alter the game greatly (except the healing part). In my experience the biggest reason not to consider these things is that it wouldn’t contribute to the fun so it’s not worth it, but it wouldn’t prevent fun either. (And sometimes it could be great fun)

    I’d change the articles final point to “Gaming is incredibly fun because it doesn’t *need to* take into account realism.”

    As a side note, I got a great idea for some dungeon crawling in a (more or less) realistic natural cave. Think of the paranoia you can get out of the players knowing there are hundreds of little holes and crevasses they are to big to explore but which could still contain some really nasty things.

  8. NeonElf
    NeonElf says:

    First off I think the points in this article are unclear. Do you think Inventory and packing is too easy in game, or too hash? You didn’t come out and say either. You compare modern Marines with fantasy elements, which are apples and oranges.

    These are my defenses of your alluded to points:
    1- inventory and packing. There were many people in times of yore that were wanderers. They survived off the land and/or the good grace of strangers. Cooking w/o a pot is easy, it’s called a sick over a fire. or eating things that are not cooked, or heated. Where do you think beef jerky came from?

    2- Damage and healing: This argument comes up time and time and time and time again about D&D or D20. Why does 1 sword bash kill you at first level and it takes 10 times that at level 10. What’s a level anyway? The model that D&D uses represents your characters ability to survive an attack. Weather it’s armor, dodging, “rolling with the punch” or the ability to withstand grievous injuries through repeated exposure to pain, the HP is an abstract figure. And ask someone stated other (even D20) games like modern D20 handle damage differently, more realistically. There’s even an optional rule in 3.5 for massive damage. The option is there to make it more realistic so saying it isn’t really just means you haven’t explored it fully.

    As for healing again your point isn’t clear. Are you saying D&D healing is too fast? If you view HP as an abstract number I’m not sure how you are comparing it.

    3- Dirt & adventuring. What’s your point here? If you don’t add the realistic element of how the party gets dirty, again your fault not the system. Unless you’re asking for mechanical rules on being dirty? I always make it clear to my adventurers they’ve been days without a bath, they smell the city before they see it, and describe how the dirt covered urchins from the slums scatter before their horses. I’ve even told players they’d have to buy new clothes after combat becuase they were now blood soaked.

    4- Dungeons. Have you heard of the underdark concept? Are you familiar with the variety of magical animals who burrow to create these tunnels, how many races live underground and build tunnels? Again the caves in a fantasy world are as realistic as you want them to be and have as good a back story as you want them to have. Google “how to host a dungeon” for a fun way to create a dungeon with history.

    5- bathroom breaks – this is the only one that I think you have a point on. But as many have said it’s about having fun. How many Movies do you even see a bathroom unless it’s part of the plot?

  9. itliaf
    itliaf says:

    This is some good stuff to think about, regardless of what follows.

    I stumbled on this epic of a post on the WOTC community –Lessons from DMing with my GF–
    a few years back that, in addition to making me completely rethink my approach to DMing, also happens ot contain a exhaustive and entertaining account of a zombie survival game run in 3.5

    I bring it up because it basically breaks all five rules, (without delving into the HP as abstraction argument).
    1 Inventory – Its a survival game, so keeping track of a dwindling inventory and weighing that against the need to care for a group of stranded survivors by venturing out to forage.
    2 Damage and healing – They are zombies. One bite spells your eventual doom.
    3 okay I lied, the dirt thing doesn’t come up, but isn’t #5 kind of a subcategory of this anyway
    4. very crucial to maintain realism with what supplies can be found where in the city so the players can make reasonable plans for foraging runs
    5. Getting rid of accumulated shit eventually becomes a plot point.

    Ok that was a bit of a stretch. NeonElf already “won” the thread. I mostly just wanted to point out what I consider to be an awesome link.

  10. idea assassin
    idea assassin says:

    All rpgs are fantasy, regardless of genre, in that they are all escapism and allow us to do things we can’t do in real life. Saying that, I’ve always thought it was silly to worry about realism when you’re playing something that involves flying, throwing fireballs and killing orcs/klingons/ewoks. Don’t sweat the small stuff and just have fun with it. It’s just a game.

  11. The_Gun_Nut
    The_Gun_Nut says:

    There is some truth to what you say. Complete realism in a game can bog it down with unnecessary rules. For a fantasy example of realism (or at least an attempt) look at FATAL (or don’t, blech). For a modern look, there is The Morrow Project.

    The Morrow Project is an incredibly realistic (and somewhat depressing) look at the world after a nuclear holocaust. Reputedly based upon a real-life report from some government group (Pentagon, DoD, CIA, take your pick there) the game not only keeps track of food, water, radiation exposure, and filth (yes, how dirty you are), but the combat system even takes into account what injuries your character suffers (with realistic healing times). The hit location table includes locations for the parts of your body like digits (fingers and toes), ears, major (are there minor?) organs, and individual genitalia (no kidding).

    Oh, did I mention that combat rounds are prohibitively long? Needing about 15 to 30 minutes to determine EACH attack is a bit excessive.

    While the minutia of life doesn’t need to be covered realistically in a game, how people act and react DOES need to be addressed in a sensible manner. Just because it is a game does not mean you can throw common sense out the window. If your players face opponents and threats that act and react in a sensible manner, then the players themselves will be able to use good judgement to plan, or just react, in a plausible even realistic fashion.

  12. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    Wow. There are a lot of great comments here. This sparked the exact kind of discussion I wanted it to. Some agreement, some disagreement, but a lot of good talk.

    @Horza – That is an awesome way to add semi-realistic elements. Things like that are realism that add to the group’s enjoyment instead of detracting from it. Every group is going to want a different level of realism in there game.

    @rwenderlich – Well if you don’t eat you don’t have to use the bathroom. There is a rule in TV that if eating, sleeping, bathroom use, or any other mundane element isn’t important to the story leave it out. It works pretty well for RPGs. There is something to be said for experiencing those moments in character at least once. It kind of bonds you to the character, but it would get annoying to act it out every single time.

    @Rafe – I’ve always liked alternates to the HP system, but I enjoy the abstractness of it. Wounds should be something major but I like the fact of having generic damage up to a point. I’ve never had the pleasure of playing Burning Wheel, but I’m just getting into Savage Worlds, which can definitely be a much grittier system.

    @OrangeYngvi – Some single cockpit military planes have evacuation systems, so yeah a mech probably would. However, it wouldn’t generally be talked about. Those details are the kinds of thinks that I enjoy to find in sourcebooks. One of my players loves those kinds of things and will bring them into game for effect.

    @Tyson J. Hayes – I was doing work on an early version of a game system I had developed and had all sorts of things like movement rating based on character attributes worked out, and then I had an epiphany and said screw this! We need some simplicity here. I remember wondering if that was something that all developers went through.

    @Scott Martin – “GMs often facilitate the shift, by hand waving encumbrance or handing out a bag of holding…”

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. I know that I sometimes work to justify the handwaving of certain things, but sometimes I just say meh and don’t worry about it. Coin counting is always fun. I always implemented a house rule that it wasn’t necessarily 1,000 copper coins but had the equivalent value of 1,000 copper coins.

    @Havukin – “Gaming is incredibly fun because it doesn’t *need to* take into account realism.”

    That is a very good point. I very much like the way you worded it. I wrote this with a particularly fantasy bent in mind, especially with an eye to d20. It is the kind of standard that this “style” of gaming evolved in. Modern settings take a lot of the issues out of this. They’ve also got a much higher tendency to not revolve on dungeon crawling.

    @NeonElf – “How many Movies do you even see a bathroom unless it’s part of the plot?”

    That is definitely the point of this article, and you make a lot of good points in the favor of realism. It definitely isn’t a system thing, but a style thing. D20 was the system I picked on for the purpose of making the argument. I think a definite way to restate the point of the article is to say that “Realism shouldn’t get in the way of fun or the story.” Sticks on cooking fires, dirt on the party, damage and healing abstractness, unrealistically useful dungeons, or bathroom breaks are all elements that can enhance a game or not.

    @itliaf – That is a great way to use realism to focus the game. The game described, being a survival and horror game, wouldn’t be that fun without the realism aspects. They almost seem to be what the group is playing against. It works well because the heroes aren’t larger than life, as is the case in a lot of role playing games.

    @idea assassin – Good point! True, all RPGs are fantasy (as in not real, not as in genre) and are unrealistic by their nature. Realism in a game should be fluid, coming into effect when required or beneficial and being left out when not. I think it might be fair to say the realism of an RPG is not the realism of the actual world. It is more the realism of a story world, where things that don’t matter to the story or the audience don’t happen on screen.

    @The_Gun_Nut – Wow. The Morrow Project sounds incredibly detailed. I can’t even imagine doing a combat in that.

    You’re right. Realism doesn’t have to be thrown under the wheels of mechanics. When I GM I will fully handwave away the effects of dirt, food, pretty much any mundane thing that doesn’t make the game more fun. I will however consider the effects a fireball has on a wooden structure. I’ll tend to play less towards realism and more towards affect on the situation. If a player shot the fireball and had the intent of collapsing the structure then I’ll generally let that happen. If the BBEG did so, then I’d give the players an opportunity to jump off of it or get out of the way, but penalize them major if they didn’t.

  13. grieve
    grieve says:

    Typically when I design a dungeon/fortress I always add an area, in one form or another, the denizens use for their refuse (bodily and otherwise). Usually just a pit, but with more civilized cultures it can be an actual designated and specifically designed room.

    The group finds it, marks it, and moves on. Not much interesting in there as we all know.

    Recently, however I used it to great affect. We had a new player enter the group, and I needed a way to get them into the story.

    That poor gnome sorcerer was chained directly in the Drow urinal when the team found them. It made for some interesting roleplay. 🙂

  14. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    I don’t know… the “I’m great until I’m dead” aspect of D&D isn’t all false. This critter took quite a beating and managed to kill it’s foe. (Warning: pics on link aren’t pretty.)

    Seriously, this is a good aspect of gaming to remember. Good GMs don’t go for a 1:1 imitation of reality any more than good maps don’t go for a 1:1 scale. Reality is a guidepost, not a goalpost.

  15. Rafael Bandeira
    Rafael Bandeira says:

    Hi from Brazil!

    This is exactly what I do when I’m DMing. I use to explore these elements. I like to make CP tired, dirty, with holes in theyre clothes.

    I like to imagine them just comming out a fight and entering a new city. Everybody would look at them all swet and dirty.

    Your site is amazing and those tips are really cool!


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] From Gnome Stew and John Arcadian comes “Johnny’s Five – Five Things About Your Game That Will Never Beat the Reality Test,” which really puts a damper on the “reality factor” of dungeon diving and adventuring in general. I think reality and the fun factor have to peacefully coexist, but there are aspects of the five things mentioned that I like to bring in now and then myself… such as having to drop a PC’s pack before going into a dungeon because the entrance is caved in and too small to get in. But who wants to have to deal with the eating and waste management portions during a game? Bring on the encounters and combat!… […]

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