A recent comment by reader LS brought this to the forefront of my mind. The relevant bit is:
"I'm very strongly of the opinion that designing towards realism is generally a bad idea."
I disagree, but I think that might be because we disagree about what we mean by realism. In my experience, most attempts at "realism" are really attempts at detail. And detail is not really necessary for realism - in fact, it tends to create less realistic results, and tends to bog the game down.
LS - please don't think I'm taking you to task with this! I think this is a common thought in RPG design, and I think I'll show here that we're actually not far from the same page. If not, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
I think that elegance and simplicity is more or less a given in game design (although the popularity of 3e through 5e kinda disprove that... sigh...). Given an elegant, simple, fast-playing system, why wouldn't you want it to be realistic?
3e is a perfect example of a detailed, unrealistic system. With its millions of rules for everything from basket weaving to whether you can take a single step in a combat situation (yes, if you haven't played 3e, combat is managed down to the individual step - the mind boggles), 3e is so far from being realistic it is, in my opinion, unplayable. Detailed? Absolutely, incredibly detailed. Realistic? Not so much.
In fact, despite being way more complicated than the 0e or BECMI combat system, and significantly slower, the 3e system is actually LESS realistic.
For example, in BECMI or 0e, there's no formal system for combat maneuvers.
Because of that, the DM is free to adjudicate combat maneuvers realistically, using their life experience and understanding of the intricacies of the current situation. 3e says, "Well, you don't have the Shield Bash feat, so - despite being a skilled warrior, who, realistically, would be totally capable of punching someone while holding a shield - you can't do that."
Neither realistic, nor fun, but the feat system does add a lot of meaningless details.
I like reductio ad absurdum, so let's analyze the notion of realism in games through that tool.
Let's imagine a game system that is totally unrealistic. Hitting people with swords makes flowers grow. Shouting makes your arms longer. Standing still makes the moon get closer to the Earth. Jumping increases monetary inflation in China, and causes a collapse in housing prices in Chartres.
In short, it's totally impossible, as a player, to predict what effect your actions will have on the world. You can't make any informed choices, and therefore the game is no fun. You're just flailing about.
Now let's look at the contrary scenario - the DM is some kind of hyper-computer that has an atom-perfect simulation of the game world. Everything action has perfectly realistic results (realistic as defined by the game world - there can still be magic and dragons and stuff). All outcomes are computed instantly and relayed back to the player.
In this scenario, all of the character's life experience will be useful. They can make informed choices without worrying about the "rules", because their actions will have the same effect they would have in the real world. They simply need to role-play - the ruleset, despite being totally realistic, just gets out of the way and lets them play.
And this is the crux of why I think realism in RPGs is worth pursuing. A perfectly realistic RPG requires no system mastery, as
everything simply functions in-game as it would in the real world. The
players need know nothing of the game mechanics in order to make
informed choices about character actions.
Now, obviously, we're not hyper-computers with worlds inside us, but that doesn't mean we can't strive for the ideal of a fast-playing game system with realistic results.
Also, keep in mind that what's "realistic" changes with the assumptions of the world. If your world has fireballs, that's fine - that's not "unrealistic". But if everything else is the same, and you can't use a fireball to start a forest fire in a tinder dry stand of trees, that's unrealistic.
We don't need reams of skills, rules for movement in combat, attacks of opportunity, etc. etc. etc. for a system to be realistic. Those are mechanics, those are details.
What we need to focus on is results. Calibrating the system for speed and accuracy.
What we need is a system where a peasant with a sword will be slaughtered by a trained swordsman. Where falling 40 feet puts you in serious danger. Where getting stabbed in the kidney is a serious problem, whether you're level 1 or 20. Where the player can drive a team of horses because they grew up on a farm, not because they have "Animal Handling +4". Where the players can leverage their decades of life experience.
Realism is plausibility, it's verisimilitude, it's internal consistency.
Realism is good.