Monday, August 27, 2012

Snapping the Suspenders of Disbelief

My son and daughter are playing Mario Kart on the Wii. The race track for this particular race is in orbit around the Earth. Suddenly my daughter pipes up, "How come they aren't wearing space helmets? If they're in space they need helmets to breathe."

Combustion engine vehicles racing on a track floating in the deep cold and searing radiation of space? No problem. No helmets? Boggle.

The threshold beyond which our willing suspension of disbelief is exceeded varies from person to person, but as BryanMD argues at IntWisCha, "reality playing games" facilitate immersion in actual play.

Strange as it may seem, the more a story, even one that takes place outside reality, is grounded in empirical data and supported by accepted facts, the faster we'll fall into it. A story's ability to mirror the reality we've already accepted is directly proportionate to our willingness to immerse ourselves in it. You can call it believability, or connection, or familiarity, but the bottom line is getting the audience to buy into the events and emotions that are woven into the tale you tell. . . . The more 'real' one can make their story seem, the more investment others will make into it. That mutual connection seems well worth a few laps around the internet.
I've written about using both an 'Appendix N' of source literature and historical research to facilitate that suspension of disbelief. A shared understanding of fictional tropes tapped to build a game-world may contribute to verisimilitude as much as its relationship to the real world.

One of the objections from gamers I read when the subject comes up is that concerns about verisimilitude may add to the referee's burden of preparation in exchange for very little actual play return. BryanMD disagrees, citing the example of James Cameron, at the suggestion of astrophysicist Neal DeGrasse Tyson, changing a starfield in Titanic to correspond to the actual stars visible from the ship at the time of the scene.

When I hear stories like those above, my instincts scream "NERD!" at the top of their psychological lungs. To hold a fictional film to such a rigid empirical standard seems dishonest, and carries the potential to damage one's enjoyment of the experience. Why would anyone inflict this intense scientific scrutiny on a leisure past time? These questions burn in my brain; and then I'm reminded of my own factoid fixation when it comes to RPGs.

Did it really matter in my fan fiction that the constellations my Half-elf Ranger was said to be looking at could actually be viewed from his geographical location on Earth? . . . Was it so important to discover which heavy metal, readily available in the late 19th century, had the highest density and therefore the highest relative weight by volume for use in a potion? . . . Can the need really exist to research the descendants of a dead Puritan preacher to find out if any of them actually ended up in England, or check Google Maps to find out if the London church my character attends is within walking distance of her family home near Picadilly Circus? . . . There are a myriad of other examples I could give, but all of them follow the same formula: "Do I really need to know ________ in order to have fun playing __________?" Curiously, all of them have the same conclusion: "Who cares? I looked it up anyway."
A few days ago I found myself reading about the battle of Alcácer Quibir as background for a Portuguese nobleman in Spanish service, an npc who, if he is spared in the course of actual play, may become an important figure in the Portuguese Restoration in 1641.

That's about fifteen in-game years in the future in our campaign, by the way.

It's really not hard to look at that and agree with those who see this level of detail, which is largely invisible to the players and may never even come up in play, as a waste of time. While this bit of background does help me to roleplay the character by helping me to understand his motivations, and perhaps increase the players' level of immersion in the events of the campaign, there's another underlying reason.

It's fun.

I like reading history, and like many people who enjoy history, I like daydreaming about what-ifs. Speculating how this seminal event in the history of his family and his kingdom may impact the mindset of a proud young soldier is a pleasant diversion in its own right, as well as contributing in some small but potentially significant way to the campaign. One of the joys of running a sandbox is placing something in the game-world with no concrete idea how it may come into play, and Don Carlos de Nivero is just such a feature of the campaign.

For a another look at suspension of disbelief, check out two posts by Nick at Troll in the Corner as well.


  1. It helps me to make my characters come alive to do that kind of research. I'm not all that bothered if my GM doesn't do it, as long as the story works. But that kind of research often offers story hooks in my experience.

    Plus, as you say, it's fun. I'm currently sending one of my Cthulhu Gaslight characters on a trip from India through Persia on horseback (well, muleback) that happens entirely outside of actual play. I love planning every step of that journey and I know exactly what route he'll take and what he'll see and experience. Cue hours of seemingly useless research on India and Iran in 1890. Awesome.

    1. Oh, "useless" in the sense: I probably won't ever need all the stuff I learned in real life. But I don't care. If anyone wants to know about, say, Zoroastroism or Iranian fauna, I'mm well prepared.

    2. Useful at cocktail parties and business lunches. :)

      Never underestimate the value of obscure trivia in social situations to impress those with more pedestrian interests. :D

    3. Isn't that the point of Trivia?
      To know just enough about something no one else knows anything about, that you can make them feel dumb.

    4. Actually there's a Dork Tower just about this, where Matt talks with great expertise about some medieval weapon or other and everyone listens in awe until someone asks: and how do you know all this? When Matt says: I'm a gamer, people run screaming.

      I usually say: I read a lot. Which is not a lie and it saves me explaining RPGs to people when I don't feel like it.

  2. *Looks around* "My, this boat is crowded," Flambeaux mutters to no one in particular.

    Yes. I am an inveterate amateur researcher which is part of why I like running historical games more than alt-history or, at this point, generic D&D fantasy.

    I realized this past week that one of the things I need to make a point to do in the coming weeks as I work on my new FB game is do some rereading of the history of the period as well as the "Appendix N".

  3. I don't think attention to such details is necessary, but if it's enhancing fun and not detracting, why not?

    1. I think the argument goes that spending so much time on minutiae takes away from 'the stuff that matters' or 'the stuff that's fun for the players.'

      But if the referee isn't having fun with preparation, then the likelihood of fun for anyone else goes down, in my experience.

  4. Hah! Reminded me of time when I attended a technical college. I had some prior college, but the kids had to take a number of "useless" general education classes (English, Math, Science etc.). During the Science course, after making 2-liter pop bottle rockets, they were discussing a follow up question for the project-"What would a helicopter do in space?"
    I sat there, in disbelief, for a few minutes, as they argued various possibilities. Not able to take it any longer, I pointed out "It won't do anything. There's no air. The engine won't run and the blades have nothing to 'grip'."
    I was greeted with- "You don't know there's no air!" "What do you know? You're not even in the class."
    Turns out, I was right. They hardly talked to me the last two semesters.

    1. Ouch.

      I mean, my daughter was seven at the time, so I'm willing to cut here a little slack on not knowing the nature of vacuum yet.

      Sad when college students are in the same boat, however.

    2. A friend of mine who went to art school after finishing college had a similar experience, especially when she worked as a tutor for the GenEd classes.


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