No matter how many times Swords & Sorcery roleplaying games are called “fantasy”, the GM should by no means delude himself or allow the players to con him into allowing just anything to happen on a whim. In order for the fantasy of which that genré of TRPG consists to not only survive but flourish, it must have the depth and atmosphere of believability required to draw the players in and engage their attentions and imaginations. In doing so the GM must be careful about how far and in what directions he stretches their belief, or challenges their dis-belief, as the case may be.
Every GM no doubt has a slew of ideas for his medieval fantasy gameworld but, unless he wants to detail every stick and boulder in the world as the PC’s go, he must have something broader on which to hang it all. These are the basics the GM takes from the Real World, the common experience shared by all the players, that he can rely on and does not have to provide for them. Everyone who roleplays needs to find something that at least feels familiar in the gameworld, a point of reference just to be able to begin to relate to it, and then to the events that unfold in the course of the game within it. These are borrowed from the Real World. Grass and leaves are green, and green plants need sunlight. Gravity makes water seek the lowest level it can find and follow slopes to the lowest ground, and also makes things fall down when dropped, or when living beings trip, and land after they have been thrown. Thus, rain and all other precipitation basically fall down from the skies, blown about by the wind as they fall. People, PC’s and NPC’s, need air to breathe and water to drink, and food to sustain them. These are all basic facts with which the players are familiar, and which they expect to find working normally according to their experience in the gameworld, if not consciously looked for, then at least subconsciously.
These things form the baseline of conditions common to all fantasy worlds, and convey the essence of the value of realism.
Cutting loose and running wild in a fantasy RPG is only one of its uses, NOT its sole function. Any GM who denies the value of imbuing some details, a touch of realism, in the environment, who glosses over it all in play and takes the easiest and simplest route at every turn through the mechanics, is basically denying himself and his players of a great deal of the fun to be had from it. As the final authority in his own gameworld, the GM can sidestep, ignore, or “house-rule” anything in these books that he doesn’t like or agree with, including the assumed and accepted basics mentioned above. However, changing any of these can have far-reaching and even unwonted consequences and can take some real getting used to by the players. In short, doing so is generally more trouble than it is worth.
The use of the term realism is NOT intended to imply a simulation, however. That would require modeling events by the use of complex mathematical equations and would be ultimately tedious and require an advanced degree in physics, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, computers, and the like. What brings the fantasy world to life and the events and characters in it is verisimilitude. That is a realistic approximation of what the players expect, the appearance that all is functioning as it is supposed to be. It applies to the way in which familiar things are used and acted upon, and in turn act upon other creatures, beings and objects, and even unfamiliar things acting in expected or “normal” ways according to the natures attributed to them by the GM’s description(s). It means that, when a young and relatively inexperienced character and a more knowledgeable, skillful and experienced character fall from a 100ft. cliff as the rocks on the lip crumble and give way, they BOTH are more than likely going to die unless the force of magick is brought to bear to mitigate the situation in some way for them, whether to dampen the damage they actually suffer, or to slow their rate of fall so there is no dangerous and sudden impact, or the site on which they actually impact has been softened to a point where it absorbs enough the impact to mitigate most of the damage, if not all, and so on. If they don’t suffer the same fate from the same threat to life and limb, how is that believable? What should differentiate a young and relatively inexperienced character from a more knowledgeable, skillful and experienced character is just that, their knowledge and experience, the frequency of success each of them enjoys, especially against stiffer challenges. In many games this just isn’t the case.
Some would argue that fantasy, the Swords & Sorcery genré in specific, is pure fantasy, based solely on myth and make-believe and the insistence on realism and logic in such an arena simply cannot be applied in conventional terms. This is silly, if not actually laughable, and at the same time a little sad. In the first breath, history is pillaged mercilessly (the ultimate source of all realism) while writing primarily medieval or Bronze Age-based Swords & Sorcery fantasy games, and yet when such creations hit the market, all ties to the Real World and the legacy of historic fact and rich cultures they have plundered are emphatically denied. At the same time, these creations are billed as medieval fantasy games, despite the fact that only what was most familiar or attractive was borrowed, especially in the case of armor, weapons, and fashion, put together higgledy-piggledy, mixing periods without even acknowledging the fact, without regard for the confusion such a practice sows and perpetuates, and without proposing any sort of reasoning why these things should all be found in use together at the same time. Very few take the time or trouble to acknowledge the traditions they borrow from, when there is absolutely nothing wrong in doing so.
The myths, legends, and folklore that have come down to the present through the historical record are the seeds from which the Swords & Sorcery genré grew, so it is the most natural, valid, and logical source for material to create such games. It can be used as is, turned all about any way at all, even twisted about just so, until it no longer even resembles what it started out as, BUT the writers should at least give a nod somewhere to the source of their inspiration for the readers’ benefit.
The people of the medieval period, as in those prior and following, believed in all things magickal. Their legacy of folklore concerning magick is extremely rich, and also rather clear as to the divisions and classifications of magick, and its effects. The folklore, fairytales and popular literature, legends, and myths provide sources for additional color for the magickal arts and the effects that could be achieved with them, which can now be clearly seen in the descriptions of the magicks provided for use in this game.
A player’s or GM’s view on magick in the here and now of today is irrelevant, the fact of the matter is that the people of the period on which this genré of TRPG is based did. It is their writings of their perceptions that have been taken and presented as the basis for medieval roleplay, as they always should have been. The availability and authenticity of the information the historical sources provide is what “realism” or verisimilitude in play is about. As it happens, this also adds to the vibrancy and depth of the fantasy roleplaying experience and makes the suspension of disbelief required to play in the first place that much easier to achieve. This is certainly a strong source of better, richer, more eminently satisfying inspiration for admittedly medieval Swords & Sorcery fantasy play than the rehashes, in which so many simply feed off of and recycle what has gone before, and the baseless fancies and musings of any of the writers of this all-too-disjointed and too-often misguided modern era. How such a wealth of knowledge, such a rich resource, could have been ignored so consistently for so long by so many is a confounding conundrum.
It has been argued that using a historic basis is mutually exclusive to the very concept of a fantasy game. This is patently false, or there would never have arisen the historic fiction genré – and what is fiction but a form of fantasy, one of its many faces. History is not somehow inviolable or sacred, to be protected from being taken and run with by authors in their literary works, or similarly in roleplaying games. A GM could easily use an accurate Real World map and a history book and dictate at which point in history his alternate universe Earth departed from the known stream of Real World history. He could just as easily use the history of the period as an accurate guide providing all the major events to create a backdrop, running adventures and campaigns that have no effect on national politics or other major events – or perhaps eventually allowing them to and at that point departing from recorded history. The historic record can be used creatively for gaming in a number of ways. The fact is, fact is stranger than fiction, and often the scenarios that can be unearthed from the history books are better than any fiction the GM could come up with on his own. And using the historic record does NOT automatically make the game a simulation of the period rather than a roleplaying game. Of course, when the GM is following the historic record closely for any reason, he might not want the players to know, or they might read ahead and arm themselves with unwarranted knowledge of the future. On the other hand, players who are steeped with an intimate knowledge of the period rivaling their characters’ own have the tools for doing some excellent roleplaying.
Unfortunately, there is a school of thought regarding roleplaying that goes so far as to suggest that those who want representative simulations of social or political events, armed combat, or anything else for that matter, or even a certain amount of verisimilitude thereof in the roleplaying games, their hobby, ought to go and do the real thing, instead. This is pompous arrogance of the most pernicious and pugnacious stripe. The entire point behind roleplay as recreation is to go places and do things as fictional characters in a fictional setting that as real people in the Real World, we never would or could in real life, if only for safety’s sake. It is the ultimate pastime for the “armchair quarterback”-types. Telling roleplayers that if they want things to be realistic, want to have a bit of realism in their games, they should go and adventure for real and put their health and lives at risk for real is flippant, irresponsible, and just plain mean-spirited – and all because the people who treat roleplaying as a hobby rather than “just a game” want a few more details in their play, to sharpen and brighten the images of their fantasy games in their minds. In most instances all these people really want is a bit more color throughout and a little sharper focus here and there, especially in their roleplaying with the NPC’s, but also in their battles, too, if it isn’t too much trouble. Just because it is “make believe”, nothing more than an extended conversation based on “Let’s Pretend” and “What if …”, does not mean that the people who play it have no right to expect or even want their games to meet the level of quality of their own fantasies and share their native sophistication, whether they are “true hobbyists” or not.
The undeniable spirit or concept of realism in fantasy roleplay is neither an ephemeral specter, nor merely some childish “bugaboo”, as it has been called in the past. The perennial nature of the issue precludes its being such. In point of fact, the longer one plays (medieval) fantasy roleplaying games, the more strongly lack of realism is felt. In the hobby of roleplaying, those who scoff and say “It’s only a game – get a life” are completely missing the big picture. Yes, each roleplaying game is just that, a game, BUT all roleplaying games taken as a group also comprise a hobby and many people find or choose those from among them which are their favorites. These individual games then become the players hobby specifically, by extension and prolonged attention and play. Those who scoff and ignore the perennial issues like realism in the effects of the rules in action, and especially in the source material, do more than the initial disservice to the games and the players – they weaken the hobby as a whole. All those who game and eventually come ‘round to acknowledge it as their hobby (that they are hooked and just can’t leave it alone for more than a week or two) eventually understand that they feel much more strongly about roleplaying than they do about other sorts of more conventional games, especially board games (for which they may well also have a taste). The added depth of play created or at least contributed to by some degree of attention to realism is an important part of the hobby of roleplaying.