“I am Grondor Firehammer, dwarven warrior, here to avenge my family!”
“I am Hondo Marelius, human mage, here to explore the secrets of the ruins of Kardor!”
“I am Talena Morgenstern, half-elf and cleric, here to earn money to support the orphanage of my order.”
“I am Maxi-3 Robotron, a cyborg hacker on a mission to overthrow capitalism!”
(Tabletop) RPGs have become increasingly popular in recent years and are no longer a niche hobby. They allow players to explore fantastical worlds and take on the roles of characters they have always wanted to be. Unlike other games and media, the gaming experience is limited only by the player’s imagination and offers unparalleled adventure.
However, to truly immerse yourself in the world of roleplaying, it is important to maintain a “willing suspension of disbelief” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suspension_of_disbelief). In this article, we will explore the meaning of Suspension of Disbelief and its relationship to Versimilitude (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verisimilitude), and provide useful advice on how to maintain and cultivate both in gaming.
What is Suspension of Disbelief?
Suspension of disbelief is a term often used in the entertainment industry, especially in literature, film and video games. When we experience a story that contains fantastic or impossible elements, we must be willing to suspend our scepticism and belief in what we think is possible for a while. By putting aside our natural tendency to criticise, we can empathise more deeply with the plot and characters and enjoy the experience.
Deep immersion in the plot and characters is particularly important in role-playing games. In a role-playing game, each player takes on the role of a character in the story. The point is to slip into the role of the character and to act as if you were actually in the world of the game. If players question or criticise the fantastical elements, or worse, the mundane elements of the world, it can disrupt immersion and detract from the gaming experience.
Therefore, the ability to maintain suspension of disbelief is critical to successful role-playing. By engaging with the game world, players can become more immersed in the story and develop a sense of connection with the characters and the world. This leads to unique and rewarding experiences that are often remembered for a long time.
However, suspension of disbelief is also easily destroyed, and each person has an individual limit beyond which suspension of disbelief is simply no longer possible. And when that line is crossed, you are out of the story. It seems too unbelievable and unrealistic. And sometimes it’s little things that pull you out.
Example: the starving overweight man
One of the most famous examples in recent years comes from Game of Thrones: Samwell Tarley, a member of the Night’s Watch, is portrayed in the series as a rather portly man, and there was criticism that it was unrealistic for him not to lose weight over the course of the series.
In response, the actor said in an interview that people should get over it. There are white walkers, magic and dragons in the show and his weight is the unbelievable?
I’m afraid that’s a weak argument.
Personally, it didn’t take me out of the show, because the focus of the show wasn’t really the starvation of the Nightwatch, but I can understand why it bothered some viewers. Because for some, it crosses a line where they can no longer willingly suspend their disbelief.
But why does the weight of a character bother these people more than dragons, zombies and magic?
There are several reasons:
- It is part of our immediate experience. Almost everyone has experienced weight gain and loss, hunger, being overweight or underweight. Even if you haven’t experienced it yourself, you know people who have. So when something happens in a film, in a book, in a game that is in direct contrast to our own experience and knowledge, it can very easily throw us off track. That’s why it’s harder for experts in a field to watch films, books and shows in that field. Police officers are less likely to watch crime series, rocket engineers are less likely to watch bad science fiction films. Lawyers are more likely to have problems with legal dramas, etc. etc.
- Suspension of disbelief is not infinite. You can only accept a limited number of fantastic and impossible elements before your suspension of disbelief is broken. You need mental capacity to accept fantastic elements like dragons, magic and space travel, and then you have less mental energy left to accept inconsistencies in non-fantastic elements. And our brains hate inconsistency. And as soon as it perceives one, it immediately pulls us out of the story. That’s why it’s important that non-fantasy elements are as realistic as possible, to minimise the mental capacity required to maintain the suspension of disbelief.
- Precisely because Suspension of Disbelief is a mentally taxing act, it is the small details, which may seem unimportant to others, that can pull you out of a story. For those who are not being pulled out of the story by the excess weight of a starving character, it is usually incomprehensible why you are now so hung up on this unimportant detail – but for those who have had their Suspension of Disbelief broken, it is simply no longer an unimportant detail. It is the straw that broke the camel’s back, the 5kg extra weight plate that makes it impossible to remove the weight from the chest during the bench press, it is the last pull on the overstretched tendon that makes it snap…
- By consuming certain media, we train ourselves to accept certain things more easily and to achieve our Suspension of Disbelief more easily. Someone who grows up reading fantasy stories about dwarves, elves and dragons will find it easier to suspend disbelief when it comes to fantasy stories than someone who has never been exposed to the fantasy genre. Commonly accepted elements and plots that make it easier for us to suspend disbelief are called tropes (see https://tvtropes.org/ ).
Let’s summarise them for this example: For us to really enjoy a story about dragons, zombies and magic, it’s important that starving people look like starving people. This makes the story more grounded in reality.
And that grounding in reality is called verisimilitude.
What is verisimilitude?
In philosophy, verisimilitude is a measure used to determine which of several theories is closer to reality.
In the context of media, i.e. films, books, series and games, verisimilitude is used more as an appearance of reality. So it is not about whether something is really real or realistic, but ‘only’ about whether it seems real. So it’s more of a feeling, a subjective feeling. Does this game, this novel, this film seem realistic to me?
The greater the sense of verisimilitude, of the appearance of reality, the easier it is to suspend disbelief, the easier it is to suspend disbelief.
Verisimilitude refers to all aspects, all components of a film, a novel or a game. Do the characters seem real? Does the world seem real? Do the special effects feel real? Do the actions and choices of the characters / NPCs seem real?
Verisimilitude works on several levels:
- Verisimilitude refers to the contrast with the real world, e.g. does the character act like a real person would act in the real world? Do cars really drive like this in the real world (unless it’s an over-the-top action film)? Does the rain really look like that (if it’s CGI rain, for example)?
- Verisimilitude also refers to the audience’s genre expectations. If I go into a film expecting it to be a comedy, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief in certain areas, such as character behaviour (after all, many comedies work by having characters behave implausibly funny in the real world, using that contrast to create comic situations). But when the comedy turns out to be a supernatural horror film, it breaks my genre expectations and pulls me out of the film. My suspension of disbelief is broken. And we all have these expectations of general genres (science fiction needs futuristic technology, aliens and spaceships; horror needs evil monsters; high fantasy needs to look like Lord of the Rings…) or very specific ones (Star Trek has to look like The Next Generation, Voyager or Deep Space Nine, otherwise it’s not Star Trek, it’s just generic sci-fi with the Star Trek name slapped on it!) So it’s usually a bad idea to promote a book or film with the wrong genre, and it’s always dangerous to break genre conventions. The most extreme example is probably Star Wars 8 – The Last Jedi, where the director set out to break all expectations and managed to alienate a large part of the audience (although I personally had little problem with the broken expectations and much more problems with the very inconsistent worldbuilding).
- Verisimilitude also refers to the internal coherence of the story. Every fictional world has rules, either explicit (e.g. the rules of magic in Brandon Sanderson’s novels) or implicit (e.g. this world is just like the real world except that there are suddenly dragons in Reign of Fire). And when these rules, this canon, is broken, it often upsets fans and pulls them out of the story. If it’s explicitly stated at the beginning that the people in this universe are just ordinary people, and in the middle of the story, without any further explanation, ordinary people are doing supernatural things and everyone starts flying and shooting lasers out of their eyes, then the internal rules are broken and the viewer or reader goes, “Huh, why is this happening right now?
And that pretty much sums up Verisimilitude:
- Whenever the reader/viewer/player is confused and asks how something can happen that is illogical/contradicts the story so far, you are out of touch with reality, you have no Verisimilitude, and you break the Suspension of Disbelief.
- The higher your Verisimilitude, the easier it is to maintain Suspension of Disbelief.
The challenges of Suspension of Disbelief in roleplaying games
Tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) such as Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu or Cyberpunk pose special problems for suspension of disbelief. Whereas in novels, films, series and some computer games you are not directly confronted with the rules, the creation, the mechanics behind it, in TTRPGs the direct contact with the rules and mechanics is part of the game concept.
Whereas when you watch a film you don’t see how the film is made, or when you play a computer game you often don’t see how the computer under the hood calculates the results, in a TTRPG it’s all out in the open.
“Make an attack roll, roll a D20, make this attribute roll, what’s your skill, you get 5000 experience points…”. Any kind of rules talk interferes with verisimilitude and suspension of disbelief, but is necessary to play the game at all.
TTRPGs are like puppet shows, where you can see not only the strings that control the puppets, but also the puppeteers themselves, the lighting technicians, and the director who appears from backstage to give instructions.
It’s also not a truly visual medium like film or (more recently) computer games, where you’re drawn into the action with stunning, real-looking images. And unlike a novel, it’s not just a writer and editor who go over the story several times to iron out inconsistencies and problematic bits; the story is created live at the table, with an average of 4 to 6 people involved in telling it at any one time.
And yet TTRPGs work, and you probably all enjoy playing them, or you wouldn’t have ended up on my blog about RPG design – but because of all the problems I’ve mentioned, there are fewer TTRPG players than, say, consumers of fantasy films, computer games or novels. In the following, I’ll give you some tips on how to use verisimilitude to achieve suspension of disbelief in your roleplaying games. I will use Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition as an example when discussing specific rules. However, the tips are certainly applicable to many other roleplaying games.
5 practical tips on how to use verisimilitude to achieve suspension of disbelief
1. Get on the same page with the players
It is important to clarify in a Session 0 what type of campaign will be played and what type of characters are appropriate for it. Each type of campaign requires different character types and play styles, and it is important to ensure that the characters fit into the game world. For example, an adventure reminiscent of the pirate comedy Pirates of the Caribbean will require more quirky characters than a dark adventure focused on survival in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s also important to agree on how the group will play and make sure everyone is pulling in the same direction to create the most coherent and consistent gameplay experience possible. This is the only way to ensure that the characters fit into the game world and that the adventure is as successful as possible.
2. use boring / strict rules
There are many good reasons why you should keep track of food, water, consumables, and the total weight of things you carry in D&D. I wrote about this in detail in an earlier article. At this point, I would like to emphasise that keeping track of these details also helps to keep the game world realistic. By recording how much you eat and how many arrows you shoot, you are drawn deeper into the game world and the sense of reality is enhanced. It may seem boring to keep records, but it gives you a stronger sense of verisimilitude.
Also, these rather dull tasks contrast well with the more exciting parts of the game, making them seem more exciting. Without these ‘boring’ parts, the exciting parts don’t seem as exciting. Of course, you can make an entire adventure consist of nothing but combat, but that quickly gets boring. A balance between action and quieter periods keeps the game balanced and makes the experience more intense.
3. Create a coherent and logical game world
For a game world to be believable, the consistency of its rules is crucial. If the rules are changed suddenly and without clear justification, it can disrupt players’ immersion and undermine their trust in the world they are navigating.
This is not to say that changes cannot be made to the world. But if the rules of the world need to be changed, it should be done for story reasons and discussed with the players. The changes should also be understandable and consistent so that players don’t feel ripped out of the world.
Another aspect of consistency is adherence to rules and behaviour within the game. If players can break rules or behave inappropriately with impunity, the credibility of the game world suffers. It is important that characters and NPCs operate within the framework of the world and face the consequences of their actions.
In summary, the rules of the game world must be consistent to maintain player immersion. If changes are necessary, they should be made for story reasons and discussed with the players. Characters and NPCs should act within the framework of the world and face the consequences of their actions.
4. Describe a living world in detail
Go into seemingly unimportant details and describe things that are normal to us in reality and that we may not even be aware of. For example, describe the weather every time the characters are outdoors. Everyone knows what the weather is like and how it works, but by briefly describing it, you’re anchoring the characters more firmly in the game world, even if the weather isn’t actually important. Describe the smell of the fish market or the background conversations of NPCs, even if they don’t play a major role in the game. Describe some houses in town or random scenes that take place there. Describe how a merchant is serving a customer while he is gossiping, when the characters enter a shop, etc.
In summary, two tips can be given: Describe the game world in detail, as if it were real, even if the characters are not there. Second, describe seemingly unimportant details such as the weather, smells, or sounds of the environment to make the characters and the game world more vivid and to draw the player more into the game world.
5. Create a changing game world
A vibrant game world that changes without direct player intervention can help increase verisimilitude and create a sense that the world actually exists, rather than being a static backdrop. If players feel that the world is evolving without their intervention, they are more likely to feel that they are part of a larger story rather than the sole actors in an empty setting. This can also lead to players having to make decisions based on changes in the world, rather than simply following familiar paths. This does not mean that the world has to be unpredictable. The GM can plan how the world will evolve, and the players can respond with their actions and decisions. Ultimately, the goal is to create a world that is alive and dynamic, not static and predictable.
These are just a few tips on how to use verisimilitude to maintain suspension of disbelief in roleplaying games. Of course, the list is not exhaustive and there are many other aspects that can be considered to improve immersion. In future articles, I will present more tips for maintaining suspension of disbelief, or go into more detail on individual items from this list. I hope you have enjoyed this article and that it has helped you to make your games more immersive and realistic. If you have any questions, suggestions or would like to discuss the article, please leave a comment.
Yours truly, A.B. Funing