Reality is overrated. Rarely is that more true than when you’re at the gaming table.
Despite the dragons, nanotech and spell-chucking ninjas, a lot of gaming systems make a genuine effort to imitate our real world, which is not a bad idea in and of itself. It’s good to have a frame of reference, if only so that players and GMs alike can make some safe assumptions to fill in the gaps when a novel situation comes up without having to constantly refer to an arcane series of arbitrary tables. Otherwise, game designers would have to think of literally every possibility, which would be almost as exhausting to play as it would be to write in the first place.
But the reality is that reality is unfair, unbalanced and generally unfun for a lot of people, especially those currently living in it and coming to a gaming table to escape from it for a bit. So most game systems, by contrast, make an effort to create a balanced view of an unbalanced world, letting knife fighters keep up with spellcasting wizards, for instance, provided they have the same amount of XP. As a GM, that should be the standard you consider when something comes up outside the bounds of what’s covered in the rules – strive for a fun and balanced world, whether or not it’s perfectly realistic.
When the focus on hyperrealism is intrinsic to a system (I’m looking at you, AD&D), the rules and reality are as close to being one and the same as possible (for good or ill) – in which case, you and your players know what you’ve have signed up for from the start.
The concern comes in with more abstract systems (which is most of them), when you or your players consider going off-script from the written rules or venture into territory not explicitly covered. When you’re given the choice between “this seems realistic” and “this seems to fit the rest of the system,” the trick is to always choose the latter.
To be clear, this isn’t about fudging the numbers versus following the rules – this is about setting new rules when the written ones don’t cover it. Simply put, when you’re customizing the system or instating new house rules for the group. If a player brings you a deceptively logical argument based on examples in the real world, make sure you also vet it against examples in the game system whenever possible.
Be aware that a lot of reality-based appeals for custom items or rulings tend to be narrower in focus than they might seem, which is part of what makes them seem so reasonable. “I wield a greatsword, I should be doing loads more damage than the guy with the dagger” seems simple and logical, when taken on a per-hit basis. If you’re running a system that only uses the fighter’s stat and skill to figure out damage and doesn’t differentiate the weapon, it’s easy to assume it’s an oversight on the designers’ part.
But you should also consider that the designers knew exactly what they were doing. They may have accounted for the fact that the greatsword is heavy and slow, and might have given the dagger fighter an equal stake in combat because they can strike 3-4 times to the greatsword’s once. Whether by accident or not, the designers created a balanced system without weapon numbers, and if the system itself doesn’t seem unbalanced, I advise you to stick with it as written.
If the two fighters are rolling the same dice for the same skills at the same XP cost and doing the same damage, then rewarding the guy with the bigger weapon isn’t righting a wrong, it’s creating one.
That’s not to say that game designers always know what they’re doing, or always create balanced systems – there’s hardly a gaming group alive that hasn’t disproven that claim. But when you deviate from the rules, make sure you’re doing it because the numbers don’t add up at the table, not because of some perceived discrepancy between the game numbers and the real world.
If you then find yourself running against the grain of the simulation fans in your group, let them know exactly why you’re saying no – sticking to the rules better maintains game balance, which ensures everyone knows what to expect and can thereby have a good time (or find something else to do on a Saturday afternoon). At least then, they’ll know to look for alternative answers within the rules themselves to try and resolve whatever discrepancies they see.
Because the reality is, if they can’t find them within the rules, there may be a very good reason they weren’t put there in the first place.