D&D General The Importance of Verisimilitude (or "Why you don't need realism to keep it real")


The EN World kitten
[Mod note--the + status has been removed from this thread, as it is merely a statement of the OP's position, not an invitation to debate. The + status is for starting discussions seeking a possible solution which take the premise on board, not for soapboxing without dissent or disagreement.]

A tangent came up in a recent thread regarding the importance of verisimilitude, specifically with regard to its value (or lack thereof) when its presence in a setting conflicted with a player's idea(s) for their character. While several posters put forward the idea that verisimilitude wasn't an important consideration, or was necessarily less important than players being able to play whatever character idea they wanted, there are legitimate reasons for thinking otherwise, even to the point of the GM disallowing certain character ideas (e.g. races, classes, backgrounds, etc.) from being played within the scope of a given setting or campaign.

But first, let's take a step back and figure out what we mean when we say "verisimilitude."

A. Making Sense from the Inside
"Hey, you're ripping off my style!" @Snarf Zagyg, probably

Dictionary.com's primary definition of the word verisimilitude is "the appearance or semblance of truth; genuineness; authenticity." Within the context of a tabletop RPG, however, we are (as gamers so often do) redefining the word slightly to refer to a world that "makes sense," often despite its fantastical elements (and quite often in spite of its gamisms, such as hit points).

You'll notice, here, that I've avoided using the term "realism," simply because that word is often understood to mean "functions as per the real world." While that's sometimes what people mean, more often (in my experience) they're referring to the definition which I'm assigning to the tabletop RPG version of verismilitude: a world that operates in a manner consistent with its own internal logic. This internal logic is presumed to permeate the game world, and shapes elements ranging from the way magic works to sociopolitical situations between kingdoms to simple issues of (N)PC capabilities. There's a reason that things are the way they are, work the way they work, and even the exceptions to these (if there are any) will function according to comprehensible underlying principles. In many cases, these principles can be understood from an in-character perspective.

What's notable about this is that it transcends questions of how "realistic" (to reuse that "according to the real world" idea) something is. Just because you have spellcasting, fire-breathing dragons (which violate all kinds of real-life physical laws) doesn't mean that questions regarding why a belligerent kingdom with a huge army hasn't conquered a small, peaceful neighboring kingdom are necessarily irrelevant. That's because both are measured by the same yardstick, which is "how/why do things work in this setting?" with the last three words being the most salient. That's true even if you (in the general sense of "you") find the political tension less compelling than the dragon, or vice versa.

B. Verisimilitude in Play
"In this setting, lightning is caused by divine flatulence; it's why Zeus is also the god of beans" -if William Shatner had tried to write fantasy.

So now that we've established what verisimilitude is, we come to the next logical question, which is "what's for lunch today?" "what does that bring to the game table?" The answer is, to use yet another ill-defined term fraught with assumptions, immersion.

Playing in a tabletop RPG is playing in an imaginary world. But because the imagination is whimsical and capricious, we seek to ground that mental construct according to rules and limits, imbuing it with characteristics that are (by mutual agreement with ourselves, our fellow players, and other fans of the game/setting) held to operate in a certain way, giving the setting a sense of groundedness that makes it come across as something more stable and concrete than a flight of fancy. And the more that world's operations, characteristics, and specifics are defined, the more grounded it becomes, making it more engaging as we're better able to transport ourselves "into" that world during the course of play.

Now, it need not be said that there are limits to this...but I'll go ahead and say it anyway. It's self-evident that anything, taken too an extreme, becomes burdensome; no GM wants to chart out every single NPC in their capital city of 100,000 people, no player wants to sit through an economic treatise as to why silver weapons cost more than steel ones, and no publisher can be expected to put out a thick hardcover of nothing but their setting's history (the Forgotten Realms notwithstanding). Just like with simulationism (verisimilitude's cousin, who keeps giving it those uncomfortably long stares), too much can bog down actually playing the game.

And the thing to remember is that adherents of versimilitude know that. Even if we leave aside that different people will have different preferred styles of play, want different degrees of math in the rules, and like different settings, the idea of "verisimilitude uber alles" tends to be something put up by opponents of verisimilitude (as a consideration in play) rather than by the people who actually value it. While there are always third- and fourth-hand stories about some frustrated novelist serving as a GM, most of the time this isn't going to be the case. Different strokes for different folks, and all that.

But what happens when there's a conflict between investment in verisimilitude and player expectations right there at the table?

C. Verisimilitude versus PC Expectations
"Just because we're playing Pendragon is no reason I can't be a ninja!" -Chang, if Community had made more role-playing episodes

Sometimes a player's idea for a character just doesn't fit the setting. This can be due to them wanting to play a race that doesn't exist in that world, a class that represents a power which isn't available in that world, or a background which clashes tonally. This can happen even in campaigns which aren't Dark Sun.

Other times, it's less about what/who a character is and more to do with what their character can do. I've spoken before about a fellow I knew who preferred superheroes to high fantasy; when I asked him if he was interested in giving D&D a try, he asked if he could play a character with abilities like that of the Flash. I hesitatingly described character builds that could move three or four times as fast as most characters and gain one or two extra attacks per round, at which point he just shook his head sadly and replied "that's not even close to what the Flash can do."

In that case, the issue of verisimilitude was baked into the underlying assumptions of the game itself. For a campaign like Dark Sun, it's part of the campaign world. For some others, it could be something less intrinsic to the character, but still cause an issue with the underlying assumptions that the setting operates under. If a player wants their 1st-level character to start with an apparatus of Kwalish, D&D's own version of an AT-ST walker except with less guns and more claws, it's entirely reasonable for the DM to say that a 1st-level PC can't start the game with a legendary magic item, regardless of that one online article swearing it won't unbalance your game.

That's because "balance" isn't really the issue, here. Rather, it's that immersion takes a hit if the aforementioned internal logic of the setting is flouted; if legendary magic items are rare, expensive, and subject to being stolen if by the local thieves' guild if they're not easily concealable, then it's going to be rather awkward to explain why that 1st-level character reliably has one (especially if there's an alternative magic item of lower power and less obtrusiveness that can achieve whatever effect they're looking for, such as gauntlets of ogre power or boots of striding and springing). While it's not inconceivable [note to self: work a Princess Bride joke in here before posting] that there will be occasional lapses where an explanation for some aspect of the world doesn't seem to fit, a lot of players are willing to forgive such minor blemishes if they're quietly shuffled off-stage and don't unravel the shared illusion. But that's not really an option when the hit to the setting's logic is another PC, who by definition is "on-stage" all of the time, even if they're not in the spotlight.

So when that happens, how can the issue be resolved?

D. Living in a Shared World
"I wanna be a catgirl! Or at least play one." -The Bros. Grinn (yes, really)

So what happens when an irresistible force (i.e. a player) meets an immovable object (what we call my local GM)?

The option that's usually reached for is a compromise; the preceding section alluded to that when it mentioned that, rather than an apparatus of Kwalish, a player might be allowed to start with a lesser magic item in its place. Alternatively, a popular option is to present the PC as breaking some rule of the game world (or, less severely, having something that's outside of the baseline expectations for the setting), and making that be a focal point of play. Middle Earth was very much a low-magic world, but The Lord of the Rings still had no problem starting out giving a major artifact to a 1st-level halfling thief (who inherited it from his rich uncle).

But what happens when this doesn't work? If a GM doesn't want to a play in a game where the expectation is that the PCs are special, or if a player insists on having their PC be distinctive in some way that contravenes the setting, and no reconciliation of these ideas is possible?

That tends to be, as Grandma Alzrius liked to say, "when it's time to throw down." Of course, she said that through the telephone from across the glass panel, so that might not be the best advice.

More usually, there's an expectation that whoever wants it more should be acquiesced to. We see this a lot if someone says they have a great deal of personal investment in a given idea, and that not being able to put it into play will be injurious to them. In some cases, this is presented via a referendum on the other side's moral character, in that if they don't back down they're a bad person. Because magic elf games are very serious business indeed.

The thing I find it best to remember, when this sort of situation comes up, is that pointing out that a given idea clashes with a setting's verisimilitude isn't an indictment of that idea unto itself. No one is suggesting that a thri-kreen is inherently a bad idea for a character, and that they shouldn't exist; it's just a bad idea for a character in a Masque of the Red Death campaign, because they don't exist in Gothic Earth in the 1890s. That's going to be the case regardless of how badly you want to play a mantis-person; even if you come up with a reason for one to still exist, how well will they fit in when the action primarily takes place in downtown Chicago?

Ultimately, everyone is showing up to have fun, and that's the single most important fact to keep in mind when sitting down around the table. If you can't have fun unless you get to have things your way, then there's an implicit social contract that you're not living up to; and while that sword cuts both ways – toward the player who has a character idea they're invested in, and the GM who has a world they're invested in – I personally tend to find that an immersive world is fun for everyone, whereas an individual's PC tends to be fun mostly for them; hence, the PC should (more often than not) be the one to back down if the GM explains that their character isn't a good fit for this particular setting (though ideally that's a last resort, and the player's desires will be kept in mind when the next campaign is being designed).

YMMV, of course.
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
To use an analogy....

We've all had that friend. Let's call him Derek. When you go out to eat, Derek insists on making constant substitutions and special requests on his orders.

Oh, I'll have the Caesar Salad. Except I'd like field greens with anise and cauliflower instead of romaine. And could you sub out the croutons and replace those with a medium-rare steak and lobster tails? Finally, I'm allergic to legumes and Ceasars, so if you could replace the dressing with a mix of honey, sriracha, and espresso that would be great, thanks!

This continues, even when you are eating omakase (Chef's selections).

There is certainly a time and a place for people to individualize their dining selections; then again, there is also the desire to eat what a great chef has prepared. It's always a question of balance.

As a general rule, I find that curated settings by DMs that care are worth the price of admission, and those are the best games. It is fun to find a concept that works within those campaigns. On the other hand, rigid DMs with arbitrary rules suck.

The distinction, alas, is both vital and not always apparent. But playing in a campaign without any themes, thought, or care is, to me, like playing tennis without a net. It can be fun for a while, but then you realize that there's not much point.


Victoria Rules
Not just some characters, but some players, just aren't a good fit for a given game or campaign.

A consideration, though, is how big one's potential player base is. If you've got 20 potential players out of which you can recruit 4 or 5, it's far easier to find players to suit a given style than if you're stuck with the same four people you've always had.

Other than that, your thoughts above are pretty much bang on.

I have a pretty instrumental view of verisimilitude, in that I don't really care about it in and of itself, but I do value it for reasons such as:
  • Making the setting come alive in a way that feels accessible to the players, especially those players who enjoy exploring the setting for exploration's own sake.
  • Making the setting feel like a living, breathing world that exists even without the player characters. (For instance, this is how Pratchett wanted Ankh-Morpork to feel like - a place that went on even after the stories ended.)
  • Giving me as DM a basis on which to concretely hang setting elements.

Also, while, again, I don't value groundedness for its own sake, contrasts are good! The absurdly and ostentatiously fantastic is all the more special and notable when there is the down-to-earth to contrast it with.

Apropos of verisimilitude versus player expectations, I agree DMs and players both need to be open minded. Here are some considerations:

(1) The World is Unimaginably Vast
Taking too strong a tack in favour of greater restrictions tends, I think, to ignore just how big a fantastic world is. I mean, if it's anything Earth-like, it's already enormous and never 100% charted out (not in the fiction, and certainly not at the metagame level), never mind the existence of otherworldly realms from whence magic and magical beings can migrate. If anything, forgetting the sheer scope and scale of a fantasy world is to contradict verisimilitude.

(2) Limits Are Already Part of the Game
On the other hand, the game already imposes limits on character options. In a sense, adding "the DM's sense of verisimilitude" to the list of reasons why character options are limited the way they are, then, is not a fundamental change to the nature of the game - it's haggling over details. E.g. in 5e player characters can't be Large or larger creatures (as far as I am aware) for balance reasons; likewise, the loadout of player character class features usually points to niche protection. Why do wizards have the spells that they do and not all the spells clerics do? Why can't you Rage unless you take one or more levels of barbarian, or Sneak Attack unless you take one or more levels of rogue?

In other words, there already are limits to player character options built into the system for various reasons. "Maintaining the sense of internal coherence that certain players at the table value" is just another reason why some player character options might be (further) limited.


Really liked the first 3/4.

Obviously likening a person in a wheel chair who might like to play one in a D&D game sometime to the person who would like to be a Thri-kreen, and kind of making it sound like they should go find a less versimilitudiness DM always and forever felt pretty excremental to me on first reading of part (d). I note the phrasing @Snarf Zagyg and @Composer99 used also says that sometimes the setting trumps things, without making it sound icky to me.

Likening a person in a wheel chair who might like to play one in a D&D game sometime to the person who would like to be a Thri-kreen, and kind of making it sound like they should go find a less versimilitudiness DM always and forever felt pretty excremental to me on first reading of part (d). I note the phrasing @Snarf Zagyg and @Composer99 used also says that sometimes the setting trumps things, without making it sound icky to me.
No one has mentioned wheelchairs here and definitely not in relation to thri-keen, what are you on about?



Tony Vargas

Dictionary.com's primary definition of the word verisimilitude is "the appearance or semblance of truth; genuineness; authenticity." Within the context of a tabletop RPG, however, we are (as gamers so often do) redefining the word slightly to refer to a world that "makes sense," often despite its fantastical elements (and quite often in spite of its gamisms, such as hit points).

You'll notice, here, that I've avoided using the term "realism," simply because that word is often understood to mean "functions as per the real world."
That second description looks like it draws a very arbitrary and subjective line that can only lead to more disagreement. Which is not unusual for how we like to coin/use words to discuss RPGs. Even after 50 years, it seems, the jargon has not caught up to the games.

Going by the second phrasing of the definition, though, genuineness and authenticity, in no way forces RL realism. Genuineness and authenticity could be in reference to the Fantasy genre, itself, or to archetypes within it, examples of it like specific works, and their settings, and so forth.

You could, of course, still get completely arbitrary. Define your own setting, and the things you place in it are, by definition, genuine and authentic to the settings, and the things you exclude are not.

If a player wants to play in your game and experience your setting, he should want stick to the options you offer, so as to have that experience. That much seems cut and dried.

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