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.

Realism vs. Verisimilitude in RPGs, or You’re an Elf That Uses Magic

I’m going to make a statement here, one that I believe to be true based on a quarter century and more of gaming.

No one wants to play a realistic game.

I’m going to make another statement now, one that I know to be true based on a quarter century and more of gaming.

People will still complain about a game not being realistic.

Both statements are true. This can get confusing, but it’s really all about that word, “realistic.” I have a friend who studied philosophy but gave it up because he felt that all modern philosophy came down to arguing over the meaning of words. I can see that. This very important point comes down to the meaning of “real.”

For most of us who aren’t billionaire super-spies, gaming is escapism*, something we do to inject some vicarious excitement into our mostly mundane and routine lives. It’s power fantasy and storytelling and socializing and getting out of your own head. That means that we don’t want to play something that mimics our everyday life** – we get enough of our everyday lives in everyday life.

That’s one value of real. And we don’t want it.

Even if we’re playing a simulation of some sort – WWII miniatures, for example – we still don’t want it to be real. We don’t want to spend hours trying to push our tanks forward three inches on the table, or have to roll for logistical and communications foul-ups***. We want to deal with the fun parts of the subject, not with the tedious ones.

Let’s especially look at fantasy and sf games. Even the hardest of the hard sf games**** interjects a few elements of impossibility: FTL technology, aliens, whatever. And when you wind up playing, as the title of this post suggests, an elf that uses magic, you pretty much forfeit any right to decry a lack of realism. I mean, if you swallow the assumption of a near-immortal race changing reality around them with a thought, why would you balk at the idea that the economic scheme for buying, selling, and creating magic items doesn’t make any sense*****?

Now we’re getting somewhere. “Doesn’t make any sense.” That’s the key.

See, when we talk about whether a game is realistic or not, we’re not really talking about that. We’re talking about whether the game seems realistic or not. We’re talking about internal consistency, logical coherence, and believability. We’re talking about saying, “Given the basic assumptions about the world and setting the game presupposes, this makes sense.”

The word we’re really talking about is, “verisimilitude.” The quality of something seeming real or true.

This term comes up a lot in drama and fiction. One of my acting teachers, lo, these many years ago, used to say (I wrote it down and kept it, because I liked it):

If you ever start to feel that you are the person you are portraying on stage, please let me know immediately. Then have a little lie-down while I call a psychiatrist. We don’t become our roles; we are actors. We act as if we had become our roles. If you can’t make that distinction, the stage is not the place for you.

When we game, we don’t want the game world to be like the real world. We want the game world to behave as if ****** it were a real world. We want it to follow a coherent, internal structure that meets our ideas of cause and effect, allowing us to understand the relationships within that world.

We want it to make sense.

Which, when you think about it, is pretty weird, because we don’t necessarily have the same expectations of reality. Aristotle said:

With respect to the requirements of art, a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible.

What does that mean? Well, the real world is full of strangeness. Coincidence and synchronicity abound. Things happen every day that, if we read them in a book, we would point out as being far too coincidental. And in a game, they become very suspicious. Here’s an example:

  • If I go on vacation to Hawaii and run into my next-door neighbour there, we both say, “Wow. That’s weird.” Then we get on with our lives.
  • If a character in a book goes on vacation to Hawaii and runs into his next-door neighbour, we say, “Yeah, right. That’s completely unbelievable.” Despite the fact that such things can, and do, happen in real life.
  • In a game, if a character goes to a far away land, and runs into his next-door neighbour, the character says, “I wonder what he’s up to. Did he follow me here? Is he working for my enemies?” And then he attempts to knock his neighbour out and lock him in a trunk.

My point is that, in a constructed reality like fiction or gaming, we avoid certain aspects of reality, such as coincidence, as violating our sense of the real, despite the fact that such things are very much a part of reality. Reality, as Stephen King says, is Ralph*******.

Now, how this applies to gaming.

When you build an adventure, you need to keep the What, the How, and the Why in mind.

  • What. What happens? What is the event, the item, the character, the location? What do the characters have to do? What are the villains doing? This the core of most adventures, and serves as the starting point in development in a lot of cases.
  • How. What is the mechanism by which the What happens? If the villains are scrying on the characters, what magic are they using? If they’re going to blot out the sun, what device does that, and how does it work? If the characters run into their childhood friends, how does it come about? This is the first layer of explanation and verisimilitude, providing support and rationale for seeming coincidences. Players assume that this is here, even if it’s not, so best to be prepared.
  • Why. What’s the reason for the What? Why are the villains trying to blot out the sun? Why did the childhood friends come to the far away vacation land? This is the second layer of explanation and verismilitude. Again, players will assume it exists, so it’s a good idea for it to exist.

In a game, players don’t believe in coincidence. Everything is motivated by something, and that something revolves around the characters. This is a reasonable assumption; they are the stars of the story, and everything usually does revolve around them. Put some thought and preparation into it, and it helps the game feel richer and more real.

Now, there’s another type of realism bugaboo that rears its head from time to time. This is the real-world expert that tries to apply his real-world knowledge to the game world in order to squeeze some in-game benefit out of what he’s doing. This is the guy who argues that the heat of a fireball should cause the air to expand and knock out the walls of the building, or that, because he can fall 416 feet in a round, he should have a fly move of 83 squares. Or at least 40, because he’s gliding laterally. Or the economist who questions the stability of a kingdom’s currency because a hard metal standard can’t meet the needs of exchange and credit.

You know what to say to them, right?

“You’re an elf that uses magic. You don’t get to talk about realism.”




*I expect that billionaire super-spy gamers use gaming as a means of grounding themselves, and chilling out.

**”So, you’ve completed the website update. Roll your Dreamweaver skill check to see if you closed all the tags.”

***Now that I’ve written that statement, I’m sure there’s someone out there going, “But we do! That’s what our game is all about!” So, for you folks, I resort to this rebuttal: “That may be, but you sure don’t have real people really dying.” Those who disagree with this somewhat snarky and hyperbolic argument are free to discuss it with their local constabulary.

****I’m thinking probably Traveler 2300. At least, of the ones I’m familiar with.

*****And, really, who’s to say it doesn’t? When’s the last time you brewed a potion of invisibility? How much did you get for selling it?

******Stanislavsky talks about this idea at length in An Actor Prepares. He calls it, “the magic if.”

*******For an explanation of this weird little phrase, you’re going to have to read Lisey’s Story.