Drawing the Line – Willing Suspension of Disbelief in Gaming

So, my last post generated some vocal and literate counterpoints. These made me realize that I had left an important piece out of my discussion, which is what I want to talk about this time.

When does a legitimate concern about verisimilitude become an irritating quibble about realism?*

My answer to this is the idea of the willing suspension of disbelief.

Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined this phrase, saying that if a writer could create enough interest in and verisimilitude within a fantastic tale, the reader would overlook the story’s implausibility. Roleplaying games are the same way.

The trick, though, is the necessity of verismilitude. Things have to fit together in a manner that makes sense, that doesn’t strain our credulity. In short, we can’t ask too much of the audience (the players, in a game) in the way of suspending their disbelief. We have to make it easy for them to do so. And if it get’s too hard for them to overlook the things that aren’t making sense to them, they will start to call you on it.

What’s asking too much, though? Every group – hell, every player – is going to have their own limit. You find that limit usually only when you surpass it, so it can be hard to judge, especially with people you don’t know well. I’ve been gaming with my group for years (some of them for decades), so I know pretty much where everyone draws their line, and I work to respect it in running games. When I overstep, I pull back, and we sort it out.

See, I’ve discovered that people will only talk about how unrealistic a game is in one situation: when the game world does not respond as they expect it to. Expectations of how the world will respond are based on two factors: how the real world works, and how you’ve shown them that the game world is different from the real world.

Let’s be honest. We all have to start with the assumption that certain things in the game world will be like things in the real world. We generally play games where we have cause and effect, the basics of real-world physics, sentient characters, environmental dangers, etc. You can expect the game to have gravity, even if it’s generated by a machine in a space ship, for example.

As GMs, it becomes our responsibility to show how the world of the game is different from the real world. We show off certain differences right at the beginning of the game – people may play non-humans and have fantastic powers – but others are shown through play and only emerge as the game progresses. For example, the players may not know that the gravity of their world is caused by a magic gem set deep in the ground until they actually stumble across it on their explorations and have to escape from its terrible grip. Even then, the possibility of such a gem must have been inherent in the game – it would work in a fantasy game with magic, but not in a hard science fiction game**.

Players have only the real world and our description of the game world to base their decisions in-game on. If they take an action expecting a certain outcome based on these factors, and that outcome doesn’t occur, it creates a gap in the experience that forces them to rethink, and breaks the immersion and suspension of disbelief. This is when they start asking the difficult questions about why something didn’t happen the way they expected.

Now, some gaps in expectation are good. They lead to story, and therefor to game. For example, if the party is hired to rescue a princess from an evil duke, and they then find out that the duke actually rescued her from her tyrannical father, the party has more challenging adventure ahead of them as they side with the duke to overthrow the despotic king.

On the other hand, if the party is suddenly drowned in a shallow stream because you’ve changed the property of buoyancy in your world and it just hadn’t come up yet, that’s a bad gap in expectation, and you can expect a heated conversation to follow.

What’s the difference between the two? Well, aside from one being a pretty neat setup for a lengthy adventure and the other being a lame-ass TPK, the major difference is coolness.

Here’s something I’ve found in my lengthy career as a GM: Players will let you get away with anything as long as it lets their characters do more cool stuff. Even if it only implies that their characters have the potential to do more cool stuff.

It’s not free, though. The coolness has to be in proportion with the amount of nonsense you want them to swallow. If you want to have horses in your world replaced by riding dinosaurs, somebody’s going to start wondering about how you domesticate them, considering how hard it is to train reptiles – right up until the moment they see the Royal Tyrant Cavalry mounted on their armoured T-Rexes. Then they go, “Cooooooool!” And start trying to figure out how to get their own armoured T-Rex***.

Coolness covers a multitude of sins. If you plan on adding nonsense to a game – and really, we all like to do that – you’ve got to dip it in a layer of cool thick enough to make it palatable.

And when you cross the line and can’t cover it in cool? Well, then you have a couple of choices. You can either change things to make more sense, or you can create a reason why it makes sense the way it is. Why can’t a fireball blow open the walls of a small room with superheated air? The actual reason is that it opens up a wide range of new concerns that the GM has to juggle – how thick a wall can be blown out? What if a door is open? Do we get 1E-style fireball blowback? Does that mean I have to calculate the volume of the sphere and convert it to five-foot cubes to figure out how far back the wizard has to be standing? The complications compound.

So, you make up an in-game reason – the fire is instantaneous, transported to the site from the plane of fire, and it goes back there after the spell effect is complete, along with the extra volume of superheated air. Add in an effect where a strong wind blows in to the origin point of the fireball (no game effect), and you’ve generated your apologia, along with a little touch of cool to go with it.

A lot of this stuff has to do with the play style of your group, as well. Some groups like a very simulationist experience, where everything faithfully adheres to as many of the real-world assumptions as possible within the genre context. Some groups like things lighter and more free-wheeling, concerned with the spectacle over reality. And some only care about what serves the story. Your group is going to draw its line in a different place than my group.

But there will be a line.

You help to draw it, as the GM, but it’s the players who monitor it most closely. You must respect it if you want your game to be fun for you and for your players.




*I’m using these words in a specific, somewhat artificial way. My arbitrary contention is that it’s okay to talk about verisimilitude in the game, but that talking about realism in a fantasy endeavour is pointless. See my previous post.

**Maybe it could, but I can’t think of a way to do it without resorting to technobabble and applied phlebotinum.

***And for those who start to question how the riders make ground attacks, you distract them with the velociraptor-mounted skirmishers.