The Challenge: A role playing game is an interactive story. As such, it must have a setting. The setting is the world or realm that the story occurs in, and its nature can vary as widely as there are character types to play. However, any successful setting requires some general laws that determine how the world functions. These laws form the basis for the sixth challenge of creating a customizable and balanced role playing game: the challenge of promoting realism.
Realism in this context does not by any means indicate how closely the game world mirrors the laws of the real world. In a fantasy game, for example, there is nothing unrealistic about wizards throwing lightning, dragons breathing fire, and lone warriors taking on armies. Realism simply indicates that the world does follow certain well-known and established laws of physics, technology, and, where appropriate, magic.
However, the level of realism each group wishes to use does vary. Some players want express rules for realism in their role playing games. They want there to be statistical penalties in adverse situations and bonuses when the laws of physics indicate an advantage. They want the powers available limited by a concise set of rules that has to do with their game’s world. They want logic to win out over dice when no amount of luck could possibly change the outcome of a situation.
Other groups care less about realism, and some might not care at all. They want a game where their characters can do what they want, subject to the game rules themselves. If the fighter’s abilities allow it to block attacks, such a player might argue, why can’t the fighter block a fifty-foot radius fireball with a thrown dagger? They care about the die rolls and game rules, and don’t want these things to change subject to the game master’s discretion. And certainly, they don’t want to have to go through the hassle of learning not only the rules of an RPG, but also the rules for the world in which the game is set.
The Risk: There are a number of difficulties when considering the effects of realism in your RPG. The first, as indicated above, is the differing nature of the players. If realism is a major focus of your rules base, it potentially alienates players who don’t care about a lot of miscellaneous rules. On the flip side, if you have no base for realism in your game, players who want it will be unsatisfied and might be forced to create their own rules from scratch.