Worlds of Design: Making an Adventure “Believable”

How believable is your world? Or to put it another way, how much must players suspend their disbelief to enjoy the game?

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

"I used to lose sleep over this, but then I realized if there's enough interesting things going on in a big budget epic sci-fi film, then you can distract me from all the science you're getting wrong."— Neil deGrasse Tyson

The second spectrum of game master play styles is about how much or how little the game resembles a believable world. Believability becomes important if immersion in the “story” of the game is important to the group, regardless of whether the GM is an improvisor, situation-setter, or storyteller. Anything that interferes with that immersion can potentially lessen a player’s enjoyment.

The three believability categories I’ve identified are “fantastical” vs. "realist" vs. "rule of cool".


The Fantastical school (fantastical: strange, weird, or fanciful in appearance, conception, etc.) might be epitomized by Gary Gygax’s fountain of kobolds (IIRC it was an example in the D&D 1e DMG). Stashed away in a dungeon somewhere is a fountain (or even a hole in the ground) that issues kobolds constantly.

Where this unlimited supply of kobolds came from, nobody knows. Where those kobolds go, nobody knows. Players may wave it off as fantastic magic, and try to cope with an endless stream of minor monsters. Perhaps you could call this “sense of wonder” as a category, because the idea is that even if something is outlandish, if it’s conceivable in a high magic setting then it’s okay (perhaps even desirable) in the game.


The Realists tend to think of the game as like a fantasy novel insofar as they want players to easily suspend their disbelief. My standard is: could you believe the event if you read it in a (good) fantasy novel?

Rule of Cool​

The “rule of cool” is, if something is cool, it’s okay to allow it in the game. Whose standard of cool? A combination of the GM and the players.

I remember a teenage friend of mine telling me about a game where a player wanted to throw a wood stove (a very large object of iron and steel) across a river. Of course, no D&D character is Superman or even the Hulk, so this should have been dismissed out of hand, but the GM gave the player one chance in 20 of doing it! Because it was cool. (And because an awful lot of D&D players don’t understand probability, that five percent is a very good chance in comparison with most real-world chances . . .)

Combining Modes of Believability​

Remember that this is a spectrum, so most people are going to be in between two of the three categories somewhere.

You could see the Fantastical as a subset of the Rule of Cool, where the Fantastical only applies the rule to the environment the players encounter, not to everything that happens. Both the Fantastical and Rule of Cool are related to a looser style of playing RPGs, common to new players who aren't fully versed with the rules. This frees up having to worry about knowing every detail of a RPG system, and depending on the group, may be preferred.

While I’m of the Realist school, I suspect the majority of RPG play today is dominated by the Rule of Cool. After all, so many movies and novels follow something like this rule, these days, that hardly any adventure movie is believable. But many viewers still enjoy them (including me).

Your Turn: Where do you fit in the spectrum of believability GM styles?

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
great article. I call this knowing what franchise your in. It occurred to me when I was running a campaign and one of the players wanted to ignite gunpowder on a boat to do something you might see in an action adventure film. I realized some were under the assumption we were in a historical drama film. So the question ‘what franchise are we in’/‘what movie are we in’. Started getting asked at the table. I found if you explain to players what type of movie they are in (and movie doesn’t have to be the model I just like referring to films because they are a quickly understood set of examples), then it helps the players know what kind of logic is going to guide GM decisions about the world. And that is important for but in and believability whether this is a grounded realistic campaign in the style of 2001, or a something over the top like Star Wars.


I'm more or less a realist. I want my games to be (action movie) real world + magic. While the PCs face far more threats before breakfast than most people would realistically survive or face in a lifetime. Perhaps even during breakfast, because who knows if that table is just a table or a mimic?

But it's action movie reality. Especially at higher levels the PCs can jump farther, hit harder, survive more than they should be able to. Much like John McClane in the Die Hard movies, they take hits and damage that at the very least should send them to the hospital, if not the morgue. It's assumed in most games that the PCs have a least a decent amount of plot armor.

I can justify a fair amount of that action movie logic with magic. People heal up wounds far too rapidly? They heal supernaturally fast without even realizing it, it's just normal to them. Most of the rest of the things that don't really work are just accepted due to simplification of the system to keep the game relatively fast paced and streamlined.

So yes, I want my game sessions to feel like they could be taken from a fantasy novel or movie that's not too far over the top. The PCs are heroes, exceptional in many ways. But they could never throw a wood stove across a river.

I put too much effort into small dumb things then let big things just go.

I did months of research into both fiction and non fiction ideas of multiverse theory...string theory...and other related things i bearly understood. I did this so when I got to dopplegangers, singliarities, and string theory all for about 3-5 minutes of an NPC explanation of how some magic works...

in the same campaign I had a PC warrior (class wise a fighter/rogue/monk) learn to double jump... not by magic but by meeting an old master who learned to physical do an crazy impossible thing...with no magic (yes it works in magic dead zones) and my explanation is 'cause'

in the same campaign I also had a wizard learn a 2nd edition spell from 'the survivor' of a dead cosmology... not even the cosmology that predates this one, but the one that predated 2 before that... because the multiverese is destroyed from time to time and reborn. And that could only happen by mixing all that crazy research on a 5ish min segment, and the rule of cool from the 2nd example...


I think I try to have my games grounded in more of the Realist category, but leave room for the other two. I tend to favor the Fantastical over the Rule of Cool though. Maybe the Realist and Fantastical blend some. I tend to think LotR books and movies as the standard for my games in terms of look and feel. I would also add supply lines and such to the hoard of orcs leaving Isengard, but likely only if the players thought to do something about it.

Magic makes things more wonkers. I like to have items that allows for PCs to do things not everyone can do. A ring might allow you to jump like the spell, but also 1/rest jump 100ft, like Wonder Woman in the old TV show.

Lord Shark

The Realist perspective sometimes leads to what's occasionally called the Guy at the Gym problem -- where the mighty warrior who's at or near maximum human physical ability can still only accomplish the sort of feats that a moderately fit 21st-century human can do, because the DM thinks anything more than that is "unrealistic."


Follower of the Way
You might find it surprising to know that I favor a blend of what you call "Realist" and "Rule of Cool."

I strive to build (and, frequently, improvise) a world, with my players' contributions, which is reasonably grounded. Poverty and wealth disparity are major problems, for example, and the party has had to deal with situations relevant to that. Religious groups exist for varied reasons, and cannot conclusively prove their beliefs. Friends or allies made in prior sessions often stick around, becoming better allies...or not, becoming more complex. Enemies are complex as well; one particular ruthless businessman underestimated the PCs on their very first adventure, and when he realized the magnitude of his mistake, he used secret means to work his way into having some...not exactly "trust" but "willingness to work together."

When it comes to stuff my players want to add to or do in the world, though? Rule of Cool all the way. Genuine, abiding player enthusiasm is not something you can just create out of thin air. That sort of thing takes work, nurturing, care. Every time I embrace what my players are enthusiastic about, so long as it isn't exploitative or coercive, I'm doing that work. And four years of running the game seems to bear out that that approach works, at least at my (virtual) table.

The Realist perspective sometimes leads to what's occasionally called the Guy at the Gym problem -- where the mighty warrior who's at or near maximum human physical ability can still only accomplish the sort of feats that a moderately fit 21st-century human can do, because the DM thinks anything more than that is "unrealistic."
yup... I actively fight against that... but the opposite issue has poped up lately (in theory since i have been told it online but never seen it in play)

the wizard (or other full caster) can only do exactly word for word what the spell says and isn't allowed to improvise or role play through things, while the fighter and rogue get the DM exclusive fiat of "Role play well and make things happen" giving THEM the advantage... (why casters are not allowed to use skills and RP has never made sense to me but hey it is what people have said)

Doing SF, I like to go with plausibility, because reality makes it rules light, as we already know what it is, and don't need stuff to interface that, allowing to focus on something else.


Start the campaign in a realist mode and open up to the fantastical as the players explore the world. At the highest levels they discover the true strangeness and nature of the multiverse they are in. Find this approach keeps the players interested and always on their toes. Rule of cool applies more at these higher levels


I definitely prefer more realistic within the context of the world building. If for some reason there are things that are not possible within our knowledge then the use the things has to make sense as if smart people would put it to good use.

Which really boils down to consistency.


For me the world must look believable and "living" and not just like a prop to allow 4 charcters to go on a murder spree.

That doesn't mean thousands of years of history which has no effect, but the world must work without the PCs. The NPCs must have things to do besides waiting for the PCs to show up, there must be trade, travel and a believable political system that would actually function with all that entails like wars and alliances.
And o a lower level cities must also work, they must be able to feed themselves and be reasonably connected to the rest of the world based on what their role is supposed to be.


The most important thing about making a fantastical world believable is that the things that happen in it are consistent with what has already been established about the setting and its rules. You can always "reveal" new rules of the world to players, but to be believable, they need to stay consistent with the things and events that the players have seen before. It has to appear that the rule had been in place the entire time, but the player had simply not been aware of it before.
This also extends to the actions of NPCs. NPCs can of course be stupid and misinformed even about some finer details of their own world, but even then their actions should make sense in such a context.

That's what all believability comes down to, regardless of how outlandish and strange the rules of the world are.

It depends on how much magic exists in the world. The more magic there is, the less things have to make sense in order to be accepted. And the less magic there is, the more realistic things need to be. Or for non-fantasy settings, substitute supernatural for magic.


Castle Greyhawk does in fact have several wft locations, but it was literally designed by the the god of Insanity (the Kobold Fountain could easily be his design). There can be some really strange, fantastical situations in a world, but so long as there's a reason (not even necessarily a good reason), then it's still realistic.

I strive for internally consistent. My Greyhawk has its quirkiness, but I generally have reasons why everything is the way it is, even if the players will never find out. My players found an abandoned tower in a forest in southern Nyrond that had two portals in it, one apparently inactive and one that led to the Barbarian North. They don't know who created it, why, or how, but I do. Eventually this mystery might be solved, but perhaps not, as that particular campaign has ended (the campaign world spins on). Perhaps they'll find out in a future campaign, perhaps they'll never know, but either way it doesn't really matter.


Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I don’t think this typology is comprehensive, but out of the options my preferences fall somewhere between realist and fantastical. I like the world to feel like it has some kind of internal logic, but that logic doesn’t need to follow that of the real world, or even be totally understandable to us. I also think that the inexplicable is an important part of the feel of fantasy. The key is using the fantastical judiciously.

I don’t much care about rule of cool. Cool is too subjective, it tends ends up as “rule of what the DM thinks is cool.”


Guide of Modos
I couldn't play in a "rule of cool" game, because things should make sense. Magic can make sense, since technology can make sense. (Any sufficiently advanced technology blah blah blah...) I'm not sure how the Fantastical can't come from novels too (Hitchhiker's Guide, anyone?), but I'm definitely taking A Song of Ice and Fire for my Realistic novels over most D&D-branded books.

Guy at the Gym problem -- where the mighty warrior who's at or near maximum human physical ability can still only accomplish the sort of feats that a moderately fit 21st-century human can do. . .
This is a problem?
It depends on how much magic exists in the world. The more magic there is, the less things have to make sense in order to be accepted. And the less magic there is, the more realistic things need to be. Or for non-fantasy settings, substitute supernatural for magic.
Some people call it "metaphysical." But anyway, I agree - when magic is so common that there are schools (a school?) for young wizards who fly around on broomsticks, you stop expecting things to make sense. Or when Jeremy Irons declines a role in your fantasy movie...


I lean towards realism, both in my fantasy and sci-fi. I publish for both Pathfinder and Starfinder as third party, and in both I tend to publish content that is less wahoo than first party, but I work in the spectrum between realistic and fantastical, accommodating both, but leaning more towards realistic in the general sense. Looking at Paizo's Pact Worlds setting - the "science" behind the setting includes a star system with dozens of Earth-like, or at least habitable alien worlds, but even their Drift drives function as sublight systems within the context of their setting. As third party, I'm not allowed to use the Pact Worlds, and as a more realistic setting designer, I'm glad of that, as their "star system and space travel science" doesn't fly for me. My most recent publication is a series of tables allowing you to create entire, scientifically viable star systems with emphasis on "scientifically viable" vs. wahoo pseudo science.

What I might allow falling under "rule of cool" is substantially less than your suggested "rule" - I wouldn't allow anything goes out of "coolness". A reasoned solution involving magic and ingenuity that somewhat falls outside of the typical limits, I might let slide, as an allowance for cool, but it has be reasoned enough for me to buy in. (Noting: I am the typically the GM at my table).


I prefer realism, or at least logic and internal consistency. Any overtly fantastical elements tend towards the grimdark, rather than Disney.

On a related note, only the other day I bought a collection of essays on Audible, called Putting the Fact in Fantasy. I haven't listened to it yet, but one of the editors is Scott Lynch, so I'm very curious.

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