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Archives of Candlekeep: Revisiting Realism

This article was first broadcast in Episode Eighty One on 24th July 2019.

Ryu: I want it noted for the record that I’m really trying to solve this without the hat.
Gath: Solve what? Did we have a fight on-air I wasn’t aware of? 
Ryu: No, no, this is with my players. I’ve got a couple that are whining about wanting more realism and they really don’t know what they’re asking for. 
Ostron: The Killer DM already covered some of the variant rules the DMG says make things more realistic. 
Ryu: Yeah, these players are still whining. 
Ostron: Ugh, yeah, they don’t know what they’re asking for. 
Gath: What’s the problem?
m

As we’ve discussed previously, and as many marketing materials and reviews have pointed out, a major goal of 5th edition D&D is to keep things simple. It’s still a tabletop RPG with a number of classes, races, and mechanics, so it can only get so simple before it stops being an RPG and turns into a complex board game, but most people agree 5th edition is pretty bare bones.

With that streamlining, a lot of skills and other aspects of character details were sacrificed in the name of simplicity. Unfortunately for some players, this also reduced the amount of realism the game has, or at least eliminated abstractions that tried to make certain aspects of the game function closer to real life. If they weren’t eliminated, they were at least pushed into the category of optional rules.

But if you go back to earlier editions of D&D, there were other mechanics that gave nods toward realism and those have been totally eliminated from the game. We’ll cover some of those here, how they might work in 5th edition, and why they might need to stay out of the game.

In a previous segment, the Killer DM…”helped” us…yeah we’ll go with helped us…by pointing out some rules that could either be introduced or re-introduced to increase realism. If you don’t want to go back and listen to the segment — Though you should. KayDee always prefers it when people listen to her.

But if you don’t have the time, here’s a very brief run-down of the optional realism rules: Extending rest times into days rather than hours to reflect the actual time it takes to recover from injuries, adding the possibility of long-term physical and mental effects to traumatic experiences such as dropping to 0 HP, and requiring all healing come from spending hit dice, magic, or potions rather than having it be automatic from a long rest.

Now as for the ones that aren’t in the Dungeon Master’s guide, if you remember when the Killer DM brought up the optional flanking rules, she mentioned that in earlier editions of D&D, it was a lot easier to provoke opportunity attacks. Basically if you were within an enemy’s reach and moved at all, that provoked an opportunity attack; it wasn’t only if you moved out of their threat range.

That mechanic probably stuck around for so long because of D&D’s wargaming roots. Including it means positioning becomes a lot more significant in combat and a lot more thought has to go into how and where a character moves. In fourth edition there was also an optional action characters could take called shifting. That used a movement action and instead of a character’s full movement, they were allowed to move five feet without provoking an attack.

It’s debatable whether this helps increase realism; if you watch competition fighting, combatants are moving around a lot without ever drawing attacks from their opponents; just the act of moving doesn’t necessarily mean they’re vulnerable. The goal is usually to make combat more tactical. Unfortunately that tends to also mean it takes longer. One of the common complaints about 4th edition was that combat turned into a slog. That rule wasn’t the only cause, but it certainly contributed.

Speaking of combat, another thing that people don’t tend to think about unless they’re playing with their armor or Dexterity score, is AC. It stands for armor class, but in earlier editions it was clearer that some of that defense is coming from how well the character can move around and dodge things. For lighter characters like spellcasters, rogues, and rangers, a significant portion of their AC comes from their dex mod, versus the paladins and fighters that are standing around in a hundred pounds of steel, or the barbarians who eventually just forget they’re supposed to feel pain when they get hit.

Edition 3.5 in particular made this difference more explicit with something that was called “flat-footed AC.” Essentially this translated to what your AC was if you eliminated the Dexterity bonus, and it represented situations where characters weren’t able or didn’t have time to effectively dodge out of the way. The most common reason this came up was during surprise attacks; if a creature was surprised, all of the attacks were made against their flat-footed AC rather than their default AC.

This wouldn’t be that hard to implement in 5th edition; just figure out how much of a creature’s AC comes from their Dexterity and subtract that to get the alternate value. However, 5th edition doesn’t like making people do extra math, so it’s already tried to account for that by giving attackers advantage against surprised opponents. Ostron, do you happen to know if that’s equivalent?

That’s kind of tough to say because of how much variation there is with Dexterity scores and armor. If you let me fire up ROSTRO — No? OK fine, we’ll just…move on.

Anyway, as we hinted, the major reason we believe this was removed was to reduce the amount of math and special conditions players and DMs had to remember. This and other similar effects were rolled up into the “advantage/disadvantage” mechanic, but if you want to re-instate it, it just means an extra bit of maths work for everyone involved.

One of the biggest areas where realism and granularity were eliminated was the skills. If you remember from our retrospective, in third edition the list of available skills for players to choose from was lengthy and probably excessive. It was condensed for third edition and then again for fourth and even further for fifth edition. This means a lot of realism got sacrificed for simplicity’s sake.

Most of the difference can be seen in the knowledge skills. For example, the “History” skill is simply a category one is proficient in or not. But any historian will tell you, you can’t be an expert in “history” as a large thing. There’s American history, British history, ancient history, etc. Similar distinctions would need to be in place for Survival (living in a desert is very different from surviving at sea), nature (knowing about tropical birds does not help in an evergreen forest), and so on.

Another major aspect of knowledge the game ignores is reading and writing languages. Anyone who’s studied a language where the written alphabet is different from their own will tell you that learning to speak the language and then learning to read their alphabet are two separate efforts. That’s another thing that used to be reflected on character sheets; being able to speak and read other languages were two separate traits that needed to be acquired.

Re-introducing that level of abstraction in 5th edition is hard, because in previous editions skills were improved with a pool of skill points that got allocated. For 5th edition, you’d have to figure out how “being proficient in history” translates; do they only get to be proficient in one subject of history, or multiple? How do you determine what types of history? And then you have to do the same thing for all the other skills.

Apart from the proficiency system making this hard to implement, the specifics were abandoned in most cases because, as the skills got more specific, they also got less useful. Being knowledgeable in the history of Waterdeep is great if your entire campaign is taking place there, but as soon as you leave the city that entire skill is basically useless. Same thing for reading and writing. If you spent time and resources to learn how to read Draconic and you only ever find people talking in that language, those resources didn’t get you anything. That led to a lot of players feeling cheated and often getting upset at their DM for not ensuring the skills were still applicable down the road.

Again, most of these ideas were originally in place in the name of realism and as we’ve said, their influence on gameplay wasn’t always positive. So people looking for a more “realistic” experience in their D&D games should be cautious.

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Ryu: Yeah, I don’t think my players want to go through picking majors while they’re leveling up their characters. But if they keep asking…
Gath: Speaking of asking, aren’t there a bunch of responses to community questions in the scrying pool? We should go check those out.

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