Anthropology, Psychology, and High Fantasy
While I love the game and the endless hours of fun it provides, anyone with a passing knowledge in Anthropology, Psychology, or even a college degree has to secede any chance of Dungeons & Dragons being "realistic." This is my big problem with D&D.
I'm not talking about hit points here, though I might rant about that another time (how the heck does anyone, I don't care if you're 15th level, survive a 200 ft. fall into cold concrete!), I'm talking about people, and the other "humanoids."
I'm going to start with the races. First off, I hate that term and everything that goes with it. Where the heck did we get races? In the real world, race means very little difference – he's Asian, I'm Arab. Our skin is a little different, our eyes are slightly off from each other, and we speak different languages, or with accents. That's about it. But, then, you might ask, why do we even bother to separate them, to say Asian and Arab? Well, it all comes down to culture. That's what separates us. But is there anything about culture that we are born with? No, that's absurd. We are taught our culture. You might think it's natural to be disgusted about cannibalism, but all you need to do is move to places like Indonesia 15 years ago, or just go back all the way to early human. Billy was particularly tasty. Culture is learned – we have some natural adaptive things that we are born with, such as the capacity to learn languages. But even that changes, as after you reach the age of 5 or so any other languages you learn will be second languages, will have an accent, and will be incomplete.
Now, how does this apply to D&D? Simple. Let's start by defining our terms. The "races" of D&D are better described as "genuses" (or geni, not sure) or even entirely different species. We can't mate with dwarves, but we can make half-elves so elves are at least somewhat close to humans along the evolutionary ladder, and therefore not a different species. Ironically enough, so are orcs. But, let's go all the way into gaming. Let's look at non-human characters. By the very mechanics of D&D, regulating this is essentially racist. It's like saying, "Well, Timmy, because you're white, I won't let you play a black guy, because you won't be able to play it accurately." What the heck? Who are you to say that all black guys are tough, wear sun glasses, and come from the hood? Same with the "races" in D&D. Who says all dwarves are tough, wield big hammers, and come from the mountains? You can't pigeonhole anyone that way. But then, we come full circle. This means the races mechanics are broken. If my dwarf is raised among elves, why does he still get all these Craft (stonecutting) bonuses? There is no good reason for it – there's no period in his life that he could've learned these things. But they are a part of the game. However, to flip it and put a human raised by dwarves, he gains none of those bonuses, though he sat and watched Eberk hammer out the mail himself.
But then we come to culture. We are told that all elves are like this, all dwarves are like this, and all halflings are like this. This by no means says you can't buck the system and play a dwarf sorcerer. However, you're strongly discouraged, and not just by stats, from doing so. But, back to topic: so many people place such a great emphasis on playing these characters "correctly." How are we to determine this? Especially, if we're thinking, "Well, that's not very elfish, it's more human-ish." That's one of the greatest loads of bull I've ever heard. Every one of the "cultures" (I choke just saying it) that these races are given is simply an extreme form of human thought. You take a whole bunch of human characteristics, blow them beyond proportion, give it a name, and, abracadabra, you have a whole new "race." This shows the ridiculousness of telling someone to "act more like a dwarf," or "less like a human" because, down to their essentials, they are the same thing. So, ultimately, all races are is a collection of various stats given some token characteristics that mean nothing. The system, in attempting to go so far, is broken.
And then we come to the "monstrous races." Question – why, by all the rules of logic, aren't these the only races? There are so many more monstrous races than not, they are much more powerful, and some of them breed faster than bunnies. Don't even start with the cop-out, "They're all evil, so they keep each other in check." Yeah, well, define evil, cause neither the PHB nor the Book of Vile Darkness get anywhere close to a good, solid definition (because such a definition is impossible). Everyone knows that evil is a force of perception, not a force of nature. Trying to make evil a force of nature is simply absurd – the world would either be all good, all evil, or all destruction because the two are constantly duking it out. Trying to make this plausible just results in a series of made up excuses, each flimsier than the last.
Speaking of humanity or its opposite, let's talk about being aberrations – does this make any sense? Not even going into world domination, the very idea of accurately portraying a mind flayer is oxymoronic – their intentions and motivations are supposed to be so alien as to be impossible to decipher for a human mind, and yet the GM is supposed to make it all make sense. Good luck.
And now we can have a quick rant about Common. Gee, that's a handy little language. Almost everybody knows it, mainly to cut short on game time. But, realistically, is this even possible, especially in a medieval world, even with magic? I'm going to have to say no. Even today, you have languages that take the position as the "language of trade", like English, where, in order to do well, one has to know English. So, I can hear someone arguing that Common is just like that. Okay, we'll go with that. But, wait, English wasn't the "trade language" back in the 1300s. Why was this? Technology. Globalization. Only with these two combined is this even possible, probable, or efficient. So, in order for Common to actually exist, every land must be discovered, every people, traded with, and, most likely, a huge international organization must be in place to regulate it, which organization would speak Common. I can't even begin to think about globalization in high fantasy medieval settings (you know that cool Oriental Adventures setting you wanted to run – can it, because there is no "orient" now, it's all the same).
And finally we come to my biggest problem with high fantasy – magic. Don't get me wrong, I love magic, but let's think about this here. At around 5th-7th level (too lazy to look it up) a wizard can start slinging fireballs. Nowadays, this is about the equivalent of a rather large car bomb, if used in the city. So, my question is, how the heck has magic thrived? It's like the government allowing everyone their own personal nuclear device. Any government even remotely concerned with security is going to criminalize almost every form of magic. It's absurd to take the magic as technology viewpoint, because they're nothing alike. Technology can be controlled, sold, traded. Magic is pure raw power. Yes, it's expensive to be a wizard, but what about a Sorcerer? Theoretically, an elf-supremacist punk living in the big city who holds a normal job but practices the sorcerous powers he has had since birth all his life in his spare time, could undoubtedly reach a high enough level to start flinging fireballs into a crowd of predominately human people, and that would be several fireballs, if he's talented. Not to mention burning hands, magic missile (which is enough to kill most commoners), and other 0-2 level spells. This is a walking terrorist in the works!
Well, that's my rant. I hope I have displayed accurately how high fantasy, indeed, the D&D setting itself, is practically impossible. My personal preference is to not worry about realism in a D&D game, but just fun, or to severely limit almost all the main staples of D&D. If any of you have found ways to reconcile these things, please share. It'd be interesting to hear.