Argumentum ad fireballum

User Note: Okay, since they’re taking moderator action about this link post over on, I thought a quick warning might be in place. When using this, don’t be “a butt about it”, as it was expressed. Also, what people seem to have forgotten in the intervening four years is that this was written because there was an adventure module with a town with 900 inhabitants and about 20 houses and some people thought that not only did it work fine, but that people who disagreed were committing a moral wrong. This has dick to do with your fighters vs. wizards debate, which was boring even when it was a new topic and has since become something so enormous in its tediousness that astronauts orbiting the earth catch glimpses of it and fall asleep.


There’s something that has been bugging me for a while. Years, even.

On the various forums, channels, newsgroups, mailing lists and blogs of the internet, where the majority of our hobby discussions take place, every now and then, the topic of realism in games pops up. Often it is in criticism of a poorly researched or written game product, such as WotC’s “points of light” idea for D&D 4E, or one of White Wolf’s repeated, grievous errors about European culture and geography in their World of Darkness games. There are also times when some young hopeful seeks aid in crafting a realistic game world.

There’s nearly always someone who thinks himself witty and blurts out a specious little gem along the lines of “there’s no point to be worried about realism in a game where there is magic”. There are variations, but that’s what it always boils down to. Add condescension for flavour.

In fact, this is pretty much inevitable if the conversation drags out long enough. I therefore present Särkijärvi’s Law, in echo of Godwin’s Law: As a discussion about realism in a fantasy setting grows longer, the probability of someone claiming the irrelevance of realism in the presence of magic approaches one.

It’s an argument that’s been made for years and possibly predates roleplaying games themselves. Personally, I don’t even remember when I first heard it myself, but it wasn’t anytime during this millennium. 4th Edition apologists seem to have taken a real shine to it. And it’s always struck me as an incredibly stupid thing to say.

In fact, it is. There’s even a fancy Latin term for it, non sequitur. It’s an argument where the conclusion does not logically follow from its premise – generally, any logical fallacy. I dub this specific logical fallacy argumentum ad fireballum, after its most common form: “There’s no point in arguing for realism when there are wizards lobbing fireballs.”

The thing is… the mere fact that someone thought to make whatever comment that provoked this vacuous statement proves it wrong. Telling them they’re somehow wrong to do so is rude, and doing it with an argument that even a child can perceive as unreasonable makes you look like a moron, and a lazy moron at that. Don’t do it, people. It grieves me that I must state this obvious fact, but merely because something is not relevant in your game does not make it true in everyone else’s.

Argumentum ad fireballum is also usually utilised as a generalised, sweeping statement, making it also false in the context of the whatever setting it is applied to. Lately, it’s often been about peasants who manage to thrive while lacking both sufficient housing and the means to sustain themselves, or about merchants who are said to regularly visit settlements separated by miles and miles of untamed and monster-haunted wilderness. (My pet theory is that they drive the DM’s Fiat and the monsters can’t catch them.) Somehow, people seem to be under the impression that the fact wizards can throw fireballs make this reasonable. While my examples here are setting-based, it also applies to the unrealistic limitations created by inflexible rules systems, and their ilk.

See, this stuff matters. All fantasy must be grounded in reality, lest it become absurd and irrelevant and lose all resonance. Normal people need to eat. To eat, they must have food. For them to have food, it must be produced somewhere. Food production takes a certain amount of space and work. If neither are available on location, production must take place elsewhere and the food be transported to where the people are. This needs to happen regularly, which in turn requires stable trade routes. Accepting that a person can use some bat guano and a few mystical words to create a fiery explosion does not change any of these, though other specific magical effects may. A magical Horn of Plenty or a Decanter of Endless Water solves many issues, trade routes may pass through magical gates to bypass the monster-haunted wilderness, and so on. However, these exceptions and deviations from normal reality must be spelled out. It’s also a bonus if they don’t sound like you just made it up on the spot when the player asks you “But what are they eating?”

Of course, in a high-fantasy setting, it may be expected that magic affects some aspects of life in the world in drastic ways. It is still magic, though, and can usually be handwaved. The D&D setting of Eberron is a good example of how a setting can be done if one wishes to focus on this.

In the Dungeon Master’s Guide for the third edition of D&D, on page 129 of the 3.5 edition, it reads:

The most important purpose of a campaign is to make the players feel their characters live in a real world. This appearance of realism, also called verisimilitude, is important because it allows the players to stop feeling like they’re playing a game and start feeling more like they’re playing roles. When immersed in their roles, they are more likely to react to evil Lord Erimbar than they are to you playing Lord Erimbar.

It matters. Even in Dungeons & Dragons. Don’t even get me started on Hârn, a setting whose fans I expect would be livid and reach for the nearest blunt instrument when presented with argumentum ad fireballum.

Some details may not matter much. It’s not important to calculate the exact acreage of the farmland the peasants need to sustain themselves. In fact, getting bogged down by irrelevant details that are unlikely to see play is not a good idea at all. It’s just important it looks like they could do it, and move on. It looks credible to the casual observer, and that is enough. It’s not as though there’s even any extra work involved, if you’re already creating the damn setting anyway.

Things like that are also important because of storytelling reasons. If, for example, you create a plot based around a famine, it’s a lot better if, suddenly, peering at the town map, a player doesn’t ask “But what have they been eating up until now?” Additionally, in a roleplaying game the settings is usually implicitly assumed to be a sandbox – one never knows what turns out to be relevant in the course of the game. It’s better if the entire backdrop doesn’t fall down when someone mistakenly leans against a tree.

I wrote this up to use as a tool for arguments. I am tired of having to reiterate the same self-obvious facts up to three times a day in different places and languages. Having the text available here for easy linking is very useful and cuts down on frustration. I invite everyone who feels they need it to link it freely, and to offer suggestions for improvement upon its form and presentation.


12 thoughts on “Argumentum ad fireballum

  1. If you want to make your argument even more elegant (and I think it is) you can differentiate between realism and coherence.

    The difference is basically this:

    When talking about realism, it may be a bit vague to what one is pointing to.

    It is completely and utterly implausible that I will be able to cast a spell of fireball after I’ve written this text. And nobody will probably question this. But when a wizard casts a fireball, it is considered plausible, or to use a another word, realistic.

    But casting fireballs isn’t realistic, because in reality (realistic meaning “showing awareness and acceptance of reality”), nobody can do that. And I do mean the reality we’re living in. Nobody does the things we see in action movies either. But we accept these things as plausible even when they apparently contradict everything we know of reality.

    This is where coherence comes in. According to Collins dictionary it means “logical or natural connection or consistency”. An example formulated according to your own could be something along the lines of “If people need food and there are no magical means of satisfying this need, they will need to grow food or starve”.

    We could redefine coherence in rpg-lingo to mean something like “realistic according the rules of the reality it is applied to”. Few role-playing games try to portray the reality we live in, because it is often found to be quite dull. If it is a given fact that people cast fireballs, then this must affect the rest of the reality somehow. But it does not remove the basic human need for food.

    Why is this useful?

    Because the people who use argumentum ad fireballum consider the fantasy realm to be unrealistic, end of the argument. It does not conform to the requirements of our common world realism, so it does not need to do so in any regard. But we can still insist that the world be coherent, if it is at all intelligible. (Sure, it does not need to be, but then we are talking about surrealistic games.)

  2. Ah. That is good. I will rework it into the argument when I have the time. Thank you.

    It actually was my plan originally to make notes about “genre realism”, but somehow that was forgotten.

  3. Pingback: Särkijärvi’s Law « Jonathan Drain's D20 Source: Dungeons & Dragons Blog

  4. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. You wouldn’t believe the amount of times I’ve heard that argument. Usually I can’t coherently explain how stupid it is because its very usage drives me to paroxysms of fury.

  5. I’d also argue that an internally consistent setting is also valuable for gaming because it allows players to be creative in their planning because they can have a reasonable expectations of the causal chains at work in the world.

  6. I hear what you’re saying, but the problem is the “realism” is usually presented as the reason that your wizard should be a demigod with a catalogue of instant easy earth-shattering spells, but my fighter shouldn’t be an epic hero.

    The complete and utter lack of FANTASY in most people’s idea of “high fantasy” is depressing. I don’t want a world that is basically medieval Europe with dragons and fireballs (nevermind that, as you point out, the existence of D&D magic and monsters would necessarily change society into something unrecognizable). I want flat Earths supported on the branches of the World Tree, outer space filled with luminous air and stars that are pinholes in the curtain between Earth and heaven. And yes, I want heroes that eat dragon hearts to learn the language of Fate and raise their fallen companions by warning the god of death that he’ll have to deal with them some day. It’s not about powergaming, it’s about knowing and caring what fantasy means.

  7. I’d add that this isn’t a logical fallacy, because sometimes it is true. Sure, it shouldn’t destroy all sense of consistency (just because fireballs exist doesn’t mean that merchant caravans that don’t have access to them can survive particularly nasty wildernesses) on the flip side, amateur historians who insist that a world should be a certain way because that was how our world was make just as little sense.

    Just because a certain type of government has always behaved a certain way in the real world, does not mean that with easy access to spells that same government wouldn’t behave differently. It isn’t a handwave answer to everything, but it also is a valid counter to trying to lock a fantasy setting to the real world in every minor detail.

  8. Well, if the argument is well constructed and logical, it’s not an argumentum ad fireballum, which is a specific kind of logical fallacy. Same thing with its Austrian cousin, the argumentum ad Hitlerum. There are times when bringing up Hitler is actually reasonable.

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