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Balance Realism and Fun in Your D&D Game

by Mike on 30 June 2022

There's a false dichotomy in D&D between the "Realism" of the game and the fun of the game. Some say the game's world and everything in it should behave as realistically as possible. The world doesn't conform to the current state of the characters. Others say that the DM is the final arbiter of the fun of the game. We can bend any rule, in-world or not, if it leads to greater fun in the game.

The truth lies in the middle. If we stick to pure realism, we might have a game that's "true" to the world but not a lot of fun for the players. Battles can drag on too long, the characters can get wiped out through no fault of their own, lots of things can suck.

On the other side, if we're constantly tweaking the world around the characters, the world can feel false and amorphous. What's the point in leveling if the whole world levels with us? What's the point of getting a new ability if every monster now has a way to deal with it?

For a video on this topic you can check out my Realism vs. Fun YouTube video.

In an article on the Dials of Monster Difficulty I advocate for tweaking four monster dials to change the pacing and beats of a battle:

This is an example of leaning in on the idea that fun beats realism. We tweak these dials to bring the right pacing and beats of the game while running it.

Some argue changing such things during the game breaks the immersion in the world. If the world bends and twists and morphs all around the characters all the time, how can it feel like a real world to the players?

One way to look at it is that this isn't a dichotomy at all but a range. We might, for example, lean heavy on realism to start with. We do our best to make the world feel real to the players first and foremost. Then, only when this realistic view of the world pulls down the fun of the game, do we lean in on fun and change the world to suit the fun at the table.

For example, step one of my Lazy Encounter Benchmark, is to choose monsters that make sense for the scene and situation. We first pick the monsters that make sense for the world, the location, and the situation. Then, only when we consider what might be fun for the moment, do we tweak these results. Maybe we add more monsters or maybe we cut them back. Maybe those monsters are really tough or maybe they're a pushover.

But we start by focusing on realism first.

When do we do something as drastic as increasing or decreasing hit points? We can start with the average listed in the Monster Manual as our default and then only tweak them when it best suits the story and the pacing of the game. Most likely we're going to lower hit points when a battle drags on too long. Only when we feel a monster should pose a bigger challenge from the in-world story do we increase those hit points. In this case, we're actually leaning in towards realism because it's the mechanics that failed us and made a monster too easy given the story surrounding it.

Focus on realism first. Make the world as real as you can make it. Think through the eyes of the NPC. Build situations regardless of the characters. Then, as a DM sitting at the table, tweak the world as you see fit to make sure it's as fun as it can be for the players.

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This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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