Behind the Screen – Chapter 14: Realism


Over many years, with many different systems and with many different people, I have gained a wealth of experience with the ideas of realism within games. When I say realism, I mean to what degree the GM wishes the game world to reproduce the real world. You might be saying “But Kris, you have already done a Behind the Screen on this!” right about now, but this article will be looking at a different track of realism. Where Behind the Screen Chapter 7 – Handling the Game focused more on the large scale, such as inherent properties of the universe (like physics and gravity) and changing those to create better theatrics, this article will look at lower level realism, such as weather, lighting, gear degradation, and even bodily functions.

1659633-rak1One of my earliest experiences with role playing games was with a PC game that was bundled in with the first PC my family bought, back in 1995. The game was Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny. It is based on Das Schwarze Auge, which translates to The Dark Eye, a German tabletop RPG. It had an interesting stat system, where there were positive and negative attributes. So the characters had things like Strength and Constitution and so on, but they also had things like Avarice and Claustrophobia. These negative attributes had an effect on gameplay, such as a character freaking out while underground and so on. Characters could also catch diseases, get poisoned from plants if they failed a forage roll (as in forage the wrong plants) or have gear ruined if they swam in rivers and more.

For an old PC game, it was pretty good in that respect, even if the magic system was a complete mess. I’m not sure if the source material (The Dark Eye) is more or less complex in comparison. But compared to the level realism I experienced at around the same time in tabletop RPGs, it was so much more in-depth. Of course, implementing realism in a computer game is different to tabletop, but that game is what introduced me to higher levels of realism within role playing games.

Weather. I’ve used it in many ways, in many games, but generally for story reasons or to instill a certain feeling or atmosphere. However, it can have more serious implications than that, which is often ignored. Time for some examples.


The party descends into the valley, taking care on the slippery forest slope, their footfalls almost silent upon the old leaf mulch. A heavy fog hangs in the valley, making the trees appear as ghosts, fading into sight, then disappearing back into oblivion. Strange, animalistic noises drift through the fog, coming from all around the adventurers, their source indeterminable.

Here we have a group in fog. Sets a nice spooky, tense atmosphere with the unknown enemy. But when the enemies appear, how often have we, as DMs, imposed the fog during the combat? Not too often, I’ll bet, I know I haven’t. Visibility would be reduced, so spells and ranged attacks can only target so far. And because of the fog density, there should be an imposed miss chance at certain distances.


A blinding flash and terrific crash of thunder overhead signals the start of the rain. It starts as just a few drop, but quickly escalates to a torrential downpour. The party slogs up the valley slope, leaving the forest behind. Not far away, a river roars through its course, swelled by the storm. The ground, previously rocky and dry, spotted sporadically with hardy shrubs, now runs in muddy rivulets. Stones, dislodged under the deluge, rattle and splash down the slope, getting under the feet of the party. Ahead, up the slope, a cave yawns open, a faint, shifting light spilling out into the rain.

In this situation, a visibility issue like what I mentioned above would come back into play. In addition to that, the condition of the ground is also a factor that might be considered. One could say that just making it difficult terrain would suffice, but more could be added. A slip chance, depending on movement or actions taken, could be used. Grip on weaponry in wet conditions is also a consideration, unless locked gauntlets, or something similar, are used. Then there is gear degradation. Did the fighter take off all his armour and weapons and properly clean and oil them after the rain? No? Rust. Is that backpack waterproof? No? Half the trail rations are now ruined, turned to mush and possibly ruining more items in the backpack.


After several days of hard climbing, the party finally makes the plateau, just as the sun dips below the horizon. A cutting arctic wind tugs at the clothing of the weary adventurers, bringing with it infrequent flurries of snow. The deactivated portal stands stark against the dwindling light on the far side of the high plain, the artifact the party has been seeking. With a low rumble and a few cracking sounds, part of the rocky plain begins to heave itself skyward.

The light in this situation could or could not be an issue, depending on how the DM wishes to handle twilight. The wind and snow can be a problem, the cold can really sap energy and call for Constitution checks, especially if the characters do not have cold weather gear. Very cold metal on skin can have some pretty serious consequences. Most games do not allow for this sort of injury though. Flurries of snow can temporarily obscure visibility. The wind could be enough to extinguish torches. Unless the party brought wood along with them, or have a magical source, then a campfire is not possible, and a cold camp in a frigid area, without proper equipment could even lead to death.


After destroying the Sentinel and managing to activate the portal, the party moved through the shimmering event horizon to appear on a different world, a new world. A primordial swamp stretches out before them, the air soupy with humidity and profuse with tiny flying insects. Immediately, the party gets swarmed by bugs, finding any patch of bare skin between the heavy furs and thick winter gear.

Moving from an intensely cold locale to a hot, wet one in a very short period of time can cause all sorts of problems, including sickness, fatigue, and heat exhaustion. The insects described above pose a couple of different problems. The major issue is the transmission of disease. These bugs could carry something horrible, considering exposure to new pathogens (I’m thinking War of the Worlds style here). Sloshing through the swamps could expose the party to other types of disease-bearing fauna. The water itself could contain deadly bacteria or toxins, if someone was foolish enough to drink it on purpose, or if someone tripped and fell, inhaling or swallowing water accidentally. I like the idea of using diseases in a theatrical sense, as part of or a whole story line, but I have yet to do so in any great sense. Otherwise, my experience with them is very limited since they have been used little in games in which I’ve participated.

Two weeks after arriving in this world, the party has yet to find friendly, intelligent life. Food and supplies are dwindling or gone. Between the swamp, which seems to stretch on forever, the humidity and the almost incessant rain, being dry is something the party only dimly remembers. Blossoms of rust have appeared on the Fighter’s armour and weapons. The Rogue’s hardened leather armour has softened and is beginning to fall apart. Everyone’s clothes are filthy and are starting to rot right off their bodies.

Hunger and exhaustion are two big factors here. Once the food and clean water run out, big problems can arise. Foraging for food and water brings the risk of being poisoned by unfamiliar flora/fauna or dirty water. Due to being wet so much, the gear of the party has started to degrade. Metal is rusting, leather is softening, and cloth is rotting. Some elements of the food would have spoilt, such as hardtack or bread. Other inventory items could have been ruined, such as anything paper, unless stored in a water-tight container. In this case, I’ve just assumed that mundane gear is being used, with magical equipment being immune to everyday corrosion.



With the Wizard too sick to cast spells and the lantern oil having run out a few days ago, the party has to resort to moss wrapped sticks as primitive torches. The flame, flickering and dim, only just lights the way through the cavern. To their right, beyond the range of their torches, a massive underground waterfall thunders in the darkness, pounding the stone with enough force to cause the entire cavern to tremble. Frequent spray-laden gusts of wind lash the party, threatening to extinguish their torches at every turn. The party failed to hear the creature coming up behind them over the sound of the waterfall until it was too late.

Light is something that is woefully ignored most of the time. Sure, GMs will penalise players if no light source is present, but that is usually where it ends. To some, one light source is just as good as another, so a torch = a lantern = a light spell and so on. But games usually do provide differences between these sources, with certain levels of light being of a specific radius, with inherent miss chance to attacks when a target is within one of those zones. Let us look to Pathfinder for an example.
First of all, there are a few different levels of light within Pathfinder:

Darkness: Obvious really, no light present at all. 50% miss chance (targets have total concealment), plus a slew of other negatives to characters within this light level (unless they possess some other type of special sense).
Dim Light: One step above darkness, characters can see somewhat. 20% miss chance (targets have concealment). Characters can make a stealth check to become hidden in this level of light. Moonlight, or torchlight beyond 20ft, is considered to be dim light.
Normal Light: Standard level of light. No penalties apply. This is the light level within 20ft of a torch or within the area of effect of a light spell. Outside, but under a forest canopy or on an overcast day is also considered normal light. Character with light sensitivity do not receive penalties within this level of light.
Bright Light: The highest step of light level. Outside in direct sunlight or within the area of effect of a daylight spell is considered bright light. Characters with light sensitivity will suffer penalties while within this level of light. Otherwise, the same as normal light.

With four different levels of light, all having positives or negatives, Pathfinder has organised realistic light levels into fairly useable game mechanics while keeping it uncomplicated at the same time. Other games do things of a similar style. Not many times within my gaming lifetime has a penalty been imposed on me because I was just outside the normal light radius and attacking some creature. But in that same thread, it is not something I have imposed upon others either, when I have GMed. And there is a reason for this, which I will get to later.

While I did consider it, I thought it prudent to not include a paragraph example of the party encountering the specifics of bodily functions.They exist, we know they exist, but it is omitted from games as a general rule. No game I’ve played has ever dealt with the matter directly (and I’ve not played the ones that do, but I shall not talk of F.A.T.A.L. now, that is for another time). Could it be included in a game? Sure. Does anyone really want to? Probably not (unless it’s the ones that play F.A.T.A.L.).

Okay, so I’ve gone over several scenarios where realism can be used within a game. But why do GMs often omit these levels of realism? There could be untold reasons (well, not quite that many, but you know what I mean), but I shall list just a few reasons why high levels of realism might not appropriate at all times.

The Players: The average player probably doesn’t care too much about the level of realism within a game, as long as it isn’t completely ridiculous. However, there are those who must have as much realism as possible, up to a point. No matter how much a player argues about how many Magic Missiles it takes to destroy a wall, they still probably don’t care about bladder volume and defecation rate. A GM will have to find out through experience with a group as to what level of realism to build into the game.

Time: Adding more realism will always add more time to a game, whether it comes from description from the GM, rule checking, or character gear upkeep, it all equates to a longer play session, or if that isn’t available, less time spent exploring, interacting with the story, or defeating foes upon the battlefield. I could turn a simple sentence, “The party traversed the forest path throughout the day, finding and making camp in a pleasant spot when the sun dropped below the horizon”, into something rambling through several pages if I so wanted, but I don’t, and most others don’t want me to either.

Ability: Not every GM can fashion that level of detail within a game. It can be a tricky thing to flesh out a story line to increase the realism, because there is a lot to cover and keep in mind. Generally, when one wishes to increase the level of realism, it shouldn’t be just one area, it should be across the board. But that is a lot to remember. When controlling twelve different creatures with their various attacks and spells, and keeping in mind what the players are doing, their attacks and spells as well, with various other terrain or weather effects, plus lighting, some of those effects may fall by the wayside in the middle of combat.

RealismWhat I’ve written about so far has been introducing realism as a setting adaption that may or may not affect characters, depending on random dice rolls or character actions. It is about supplying a framework that exists within the setting and letting chance take effect, as it is within the real world. Heavily structured combat games, like Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons, can suffer if this framework is enforced within combat sections, as it can bog down the already slow combat with more variables. Other games that do not involve combat or do so in a more organic manner, can benefit from that extra level of realism. That level of realism can help immerse players into the story to a deeper degree.

But in saying that, elements of realism can be used within a story without bringing in that framework. A character could contract a disease, or light levels could be purposefully low purely for story driven reasons, where there was never an element of chance. These plot devices are there for a reason, and can help bring the illusion of realism without having to go to all the extra work of creating that random effect framework. If employed correctly, realism can help deepen an RP experience, but done badly, it can make it so much worse. Sometimes people say “Less is more” but not in this case, I think. A half dozen dice rolls to simulate a couple years of space travel with a small group is insufficient, but each character listing what they did each day for two years is too much. A happy medium between players and GM must be reached, where each are happy with the levels of realism involved.

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