This is a subject that comes up frequently in RPG circles: Realism — how “real” should your games be? Ultimately, the issue is that you are not modeling reality, but are engaged in some form of storytelling. Dependent on the demands of genre, or the style of story told, your “reality” is likely to be different. Realism, however is the wrong word. A more appropriate one would be verisimilitude:
ver·i·si·mil·i·tude ˌverəsəˈmiliˌt(y)o͞od noun: the appearance of being true or real. “the detail gives the novel some verisimilitude.” Synonyms: realism, believability, plausibility, authenticity, credibility, lifelikeness “the verisimilitude of her performance is gripping”
Not only is it more accurate a description of what you are trying to explain, but it’s a damned cool-smart word.
Almost no movie, book, or game is going to be based in “reality.” There is some aspect of the fantastical — either you are in a world with elves, dwarves, and the like; or you are in a spy-fi world where you go out and hunt down bad guys (or are bad guys engaged in amazing acts of cool criminality) instead of sitting at a desk reading and translating a five foot high pile of SIGINT captures and hoping the TS-cleared coffee guys at the Starbucks in the lobby showed up today, while negotiating the hazards of the CIA Style Guide; or you are fighting killer robots in space, in airplane like fighters that have no business being plane-like in space; or you are fighting zombies/robots/ancient horrors….
See my point? Not reality. But you can use elements of reality to make it feel real. Steven King, for all his faults, is a great horror writer because most of his books start out normal. They really dig into the mundanity of every day life so that when things tip into the supernatural, or simply the dangerous (like getting stuck in a car with a rabid dog outside), the stakes feel heightened.
Why did the reimagined Battlestar Galactica work so well? Because it felt real. Clunky intercom phones, realistic military jargon, battered metal ships that broke down, guns not lasers. In the end, even the ability to do FTL jumps could be waved away, as there were issues with the time to “spin up” or distance limitations. The outlandish technology felt real because it seemed to have limits and they were consistent.
In multiple action movies, guys can shoot a propane tank –which, by the way, is probably built tougher than an actual battle “tank” — with a 9mm and BOOM! We don’t question it. You can shoot a car gas tank (again, kinda engineered to resist punctures) and BOOM! Pistols are magic. The heroes can fall ridiculous distances and with a pained grunt, limp away. We buy it. Grenades apparently explode in a neighborhood-sized ball of fire (they don’t; I know) and that fireball will travel linearly (just turn the corner!) and only as fast as you run/drive/fly. Is that real? Or even remotely realistic? No — but it is part of the tropes of that genre. It is the reality of that universe.
Is Tolkein “realistic”? Hell, no; but between the rich history, the different languages, the maps, the great characters, the feeling of real injury and danger, and the general consistency of how magic works, it feels real.
The key to verisimilitude is to, from the start, have a set of rules for the universe, or at the very least, an understanding of how it works. If technology works a certain way, don’t rewire the spiraling quantum whatsinator in your deflector dish this week to solve and issue, then forget all about it the next. If time travel requires living material, then your morphing death machine should still have to be inside a living creature to travel (and then it can be much more frighteningly revealed…) If your Cylons can’t breed, why? Is it “God” stopping them, or something to do with their bio-tech hybrid nature?
Example: Often when I run “spy-fi”, the game universe is based pretty tightly on how the nations, agencies, groups operate in reality. There’s politics to take into account, there’s technological limits to satellite imagery, cell phone captures, etc. You can’t get from Washington to Dubai in less than a day (but it’s still a nice smash cut for the sake of getting on with it.) You spend time doing some investigations, but often the analyst team has done the heavy lifting for you…otherwise, you are gaming sitting in an office going over reports and transcripts of phone calls. Guns aren’t magic, nor are explosives; you can only pack some many gadgets in a high-end car and if you keep breaking them, eventually they’re going to give you the Nissan subcompact rental with you have to pay for the insurance. This helps it feel real.
But you can still do things that are outside the norm of human ability — after all, you’re the heroes. And the villains are sometimes going to be larger than life — because that’s spy-fi. you can’t be hunting the same group of Islamic terrorists week to week; sometime you have to go for that evil environmental philanthropist looking to collapse the world economy to make another tens of billions on shorting currencies. (Not that governments would send you after these guys…they’re the politicians’ bread and butter.) This is what keeps it fun.
Depending on the genre and tone of the game, there will be a natural balance between the fantastic and verisimilitude. A ’30s pulp game could run the gambit from a Raiders of the Lost Ark setting where high action, very tough characters, and really high stakes (and the occasional supernatural) are going on but few generally know, to something a bit more outlandish like the plethora of masked crime-fighters from The Phantom and The Shadow to their more successful derivative, Batman. Pirates are loose in the world doing evil things, villains dress up like clowns, or guys have the power to “cloud men’s minds.” There is a natural step away from realism in these settings. You can embrace it, or you can try to amp up the “realism” but that only works if you show how unusual the hero and villain really are. (The Dark Knight does this to good effect in the first 2/3rds of the movie — Batman is established, but still odd, still an outsider; and the Joker…?)
Another great example of how verisimilitude can work is The Incredibles, a movie I borrowed a lot from for my short-lived Marvel Heroic RPG campaign. The heroes are pushed out of adventuring and crimefighting under the weight of a litigious society and ordinary folks’ envy and fear of them. I combined this with the desire of the state to box, catalogue, and control pretty much anything they can (read Seeing Like a State by James Scott) to make a game setting where heroes and villains exist, super-powered creatures have been around since the beginning of time, but with the population boom of the 20th Century, what was once a rare thing is still statistically rare, but common enough to be an ever-present threat. To use your powers, you needed licenses and insurance against damages. Many of our villains were folks that couldn’t get these permits and started operating outside the confines of the law. There was “the Crane” – a super-strong guy that worked construction illegally, but because it’s a federal crime, it’s a felony; there was the Hollywood heartthrob hero who liked little girls and lost it all. There were special teams of supers and well-trained normals with incredible gear to stop the bad guys. But it had certain rules to ground it in a reality where the normals were desperately trying to control creatures that were beyond that.
So how “real” do your game settings have to be? The answer is “it depends” — look at the conventions of the setting you are working with through the lens of the tone you want. There should be a natural balance that you will arrive at. Then be consistent with your rules.