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Reality Versus Fiction in D&D




It’s Friday night. Two new players are being introduced into Altarin campaign, a rowdy romp through a slew of sea-stranded islands and pirate parties. The group has been on a quest to find pieces of an ancient, powerful gauntlet capable of destroying a lich’s phylactery and controlling legions of undead. Their mission has brought them to the sea, to the Foredoomed Spire, a sunken tower built by a cabal of storm giant wizards; within waits a missing piece of the gauntlet. However, the tower rests on the ocean floor, miles below the surface. The party hatches a plan to use their newly-acquired sea elf companions and their underwater-capable vessel to barrel to the bottom of the ocean and then enter the giant’s tower. They begin their descent, water racing past them, tropical creatures rushing around them, when a player pipes up, “Shouldn’t the water pressure be killing us? What’s going on here?” My description stopped, my face swelled, and my mind was stumped. He’s right, I thought. But is he?
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Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy roleplaying game. Players portray humans that can cast powerful spells, elves that succeed in gravity-defying combat maneuvers, dwarves of incredible resilience to magical poison and gallons of ale, and dragonborn who are literally two-legged miniature dragons. Dungeon Masters control the rest of the world, running creatures such as liches of untold power, clumsy hill giants, and even swarms of bats, describing the fantastical environment, how it changes, and weaving all the rest that a fantasy world entails.

However, everything I just described, as silly as it sounds, is grounded in reality. Without some dose of reality in our D&D games, our immersion goes down the drain. When we describe environments, we try to make them seem real; the same goes for monsters, NPCs, and magical items.

Regardless, before we play D&D, everyone needs to understand that although much of the game is based on describing things as real, a lot of D&D relies on suspending disbelief and understanding that we’re all playing in a realm of fantasy (most of the time).

This week, we’re discussing where to draw the line between fiction and reality, and when to simply let the fantastical fly!

Let’s roll.

Drawing a Line Between Our World and Fantasy World

As a general rule, everyone who plays D&D must comprehend that most of the time, the rules of the real world are in play. When an object is thrown, it tumbles to the ground due to gravity. When a sword slices through a human’s arm, the arm bleeds. When the sun is in the sky, it’s daytime; when the sun has faded, it’s nighttime. All of these are fundamental truths both in D&D and the real world, and they’re in use and valid most of the time while playing the RPG.

Of course, since most D&D campaigns and adventures take place in a world of fantasy, these truths can be subverted or completely erased.
  1. The laws of gravity might be utterly changed if the Player Characters teleport to another plane of existence, such as Limbo, completely altering how the game is played.
  2. As a fantastic fighter slices through his opponent’s arm, no blood pours from the wound; instead, it instantly regenerates, hinting at a supernatural ability of the creature.
  3. A worldwide curse might be causing the sun to never leave the sky or denying its return unless a specific wall is broken, absolutely changing everything around the world.
However, if any of these subversions DO occur, it is the Dungeon Master’s job to alert the players of this change. The DM must draw a line between reality and fantasy; they must make clear which fundamental laws and truths of Earth are also true in Fantasy World. If you don’t make it clear to your players that gravity is gone or the enemy they’re fighting is regenerating after every cut of their longsword, they’ll become frustrated.

Thus, my main piece of advice for this is as follows: If you’re altering a fundamental truth of the real world, make it clear to the players. You don’t need to explain how the body system of the troll works, but you do need to say that it’s healing. You don’t need to say the world is cursed, but you do need to state that the sun isn’t rising in the east.

Pay attention to details and alert your players of deviations, especially if they are subverted real-world facts.

The Rule of Cool (Reality Version)

This next topic is relatively separate from the topic discussed above, but it still concerns reality in D&D. I’m a prominent proponent of the aptly named ‘rule of cool’ which usually means that if something is awesome, epic, or cool, the group should bend the rules to allow it to happen. The same thought process, in my eyes, should be upheld when something interesting or cool is sizing up against what is realistic. 

Of course, don’t always let what the players attempt to succeed - use a gauge. Don’t let folks leap across a two-hundred-foot chasm or jump into a pool of lava and survive; to complete those actions, they’ll need to utilize fantasy means, and if they do, they should succeed in them, even if it’s a tad crazy.

In the end, it's your table and your call. If you want to allow folks to survive a tumble into a pool of bubbling lava at the feet of the efreeti endboss of your campaign, go ahead.

As I learned long ago, fun trumps story trumps rules - and rules trump reality.

As you can see, fun (cool) beats out everything. However, that's my table, and yours might be different. I wasn't concerned with the water pressure of the ocean floor in the story above, I was concerned with how awesome the moment should be. Yet, I should have read my players in the moment - I should have read my table - and changed my presentation of the moment.

Perhaps the main lesson here is to pay attention to your players and see how they're reacting. If they are in love with the rule of cool (reality and rules), use it. If not, pass it by.

In Summary

D&D, while a fantasy roleplaying game, has roots in reality. As players of the game, we must root what happens during adventures in reality - sometimes - to keep the campaign relatable. Remember:
  1. Drawing a line between reality and fantasy in your campaign and sticking to it may work for most groups.
  2. If keeping the adventure grounded in reality is draining the fun from the game or getting in the way of too many awesome moments, ease up. Fun trumps story trumps rules which trumps reality!
Next week, we’re continuing Musing Over Monsters with two incredibly interesting creatures: Myconids and vegepygmies! These two plant-based monsters are the perfect villains or allies for any D&D campaign, and I’m ecstatic to share all I have to offer about the duo.

Apologies for the late article, folks. I got married on Saturday to the most wonderful woman in the world. More on that later; I think I have content for an article from the amazing ceremony and reception, during which, many references to fantasy and D&D were included.

Until next time, folks, farewell!

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