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?
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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".

Fantastical​

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.

Realist​

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

Hussar

Legend
Fantastical Rule of Cool. Settings are disposable, and largely only there to be a place where the action happen. Even casually scratch the surface and every single fantasy setting I've ever seen falls apart like the house of cards that it is. At best, we wink and nod at Realism. The problem comes when people try to presume that just because they don't see the inconsistencies, that these don't actually exist.

I find the whole "Well, my world is a living breathing world" just so tiresome to be honest. No, it really, really isn't. Give me 30 seconds and I guarantee that I can find half a dozen massive inconsistencies and unrealistic elements in your setting. Good grief, if professional writers can't write settings that are consistent, what makes people think that they can?

I find being a lot more relaxed about it and not scratching at the surface makes the whole experience a lot more enjoyable.
 

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Tsuga C

Explorer
"Believable" adventures must be cut from a consistent cloth and they must not strain my credulity. The former mandates maintaining verisimilitude via internal consistency and the latter means placing low to low-medium limits on the fantastical elements of the campaign. The milieu of "A Song of Ice and Fire" is a great deal more believable than that of the Forgotten Realms. Fantastical elements are present in both settings, but they are limited in the former and abound in the latter.

I won't categorically slam the door in the face of High Fantasy, but it would have to be exceptionally well done for me to want to be a player at that table.
 

I'm not sure I understand the rubric for these categories. It's especially unhelpful that the examples are presented without context as if there is some inherent objective scale that they fall on which everyone knows about and agrees to. Moreover, no example is provided for a "realist" style.

Is a fountain of kobolds  inherently less believable/more fantastical than a race constructed by a god or wizard? I'm not sure I'd say so.

Reading between the lines, it seems to me that the rubric is less about believability and more about resemblance to earthly reality. There is certainly a spectrum there worth exploring, but, I don't believe that there is any essential tether to believability in setting.

That is established by how consistently setting rules are followed, how systems work, etc. If anyone in the setting with xyz strength score can throw an iron stove a country mile, then the player doing it is consistent with the setting; it should be "believable". If no one can, then it is inconsistent with the setting, and suspension of disbelief is required. It has nothing to do with whether you, me, or an Olympic shot putter could do it.
 

Arilyn

Hero
I just finished reading "Gallant" by V. E. Schwab. I'm not sure when or even exactly where the story takes place. It is early 20th century England at a gothic estate. It's a very creepy story with well realized characters and the story is clinging to me even though it is a fantastical tale with a vague setting. But it feels true.

I think feeling true is the key in an RPG as well. If the players can hook into the setting (even if it's more of a sketch) and their characters and situations feel authentic, then the adventure will be believable, whether it's the weird world of Troika or a well researched historical setting.
 

DND_Reborn

Legend
Your Turn: Where do you fit in the spectrum of believability GM styles?
70% Realism, 25% Fantastical, 5% Rule of Cool.

My worlds/adventures are grounded in realism. You need food and water, rest, gravity works as in real life, weather works as expected in real life, etc. I want a world my players could walk outside and imagine themselves in.

Fantastical elements are included (occasionally) because it is a fantasy game, not a medieval sim or something for me. Creatures such as dragons and lycanthropes, undead and fiends and giants are all there, but your typical commoner would not likely have met any such things and lived to tell the tale. They all know such things are "out there", however. The level also includes what I consider the Xena-level of things, which of course could not happen in realism alone.

Rule of Cool breaks everything open. Myself (especially LOL) and the others have to really buy in to whatever is going on for this rule to activate, but once it does all bets are off. Things happen beyond realism (or even fantasy!). Perhaps some deity intervened or simple adrenaline made the impossible-possible (the old lady lifting the car off of the child, etc.). The rule of cool is rare, but very memorable when it happens.

That is pretty much my breakdown. :)
 

Hussar

Legend
This topic is somewhat timely for me since I've been on again off again working on a new setting for a future campaign. Finally going back to homebrew for a while after a string of canned campaigns.

Now, my homebrew world is set on the body of an earth god/goddess (haven't really decided a gender yet if I ever will) where dungeons erupt through the surface of the world, growing like cancers upon the body of this deity. The deity has created a massive wandering creature as an avatar to devour and destroy these dungeon cancers. But, the dungeon cancers are also part of the body of the world deity and as such can create life. When the dungeon is devoured by the wandering avatar, those beings that were created by the dungeon as servitors are set free. Some have banded together to create a village upon the back of the avatar (now called The Village) and live there while trying to aid the avatar in destroying the dungeon cancers that are killing the world deity.

There are no other settlements upon the world, since only the dungeons (or the world deity, which chooses not to) can create intelligent life. It's a very Battlestar Galactica feel where the only survivors of free people are constantly trying to survive and keep the world deity from being killed by the dungeon cancers.

So, yeah, I've very, very much delved into the Fantastical. There's been a bit of Realism, I suppose, dropped in, mostly from the perspective of how does this or that work (as in, what do the people in the Village eat? Answer, primarily honey from the giant bees they've cultivated - also adding in a source of cure wounds potions inspired by the giant bees of Basic D&D). But, very much Fantastical with a layering of Rule of Cool. Since everything you meet is spawned by a Dungeon, a well of kobolds would make perfect sense in this setting.
 

Richards

Legend
My current game world in my "Dreams of Erthe" campaign has the advantage of being able to work on both ends of the realism spectrum, since I try to make the "real world" at least internally consistent, even if it has fantastic creatures in it - but a good chunk of the game time is devoted to physically exploring dreamscapes, and while the PCs are in a specific dream there's nothing wrong with logic taking a flying leap out the metaphoric window.

Johnathan
 

RareBreed

Villager
I believe I've written about this before, but back in the day, many TTRPGs had characters who were for the most part regular humans (so minimal "rule of cool" chances) and were in a mostly realistic setting. A sampling:

  • Twilight 2000: Average joes surviving the apocalypse of WW3 (most characters were not even elite Spec Ops miltary types)
  • Aftermath, The Morrow Project: Also post-apocalypse, but a little more fantastic (mutants and some anachronistic tech) but still all plausible
  • Traveller 2300: the natural progression of the TW2k universe and was hard sci fi (I'd even argue Traveller was more realist than space opera)
  • Justice Inc, Daredevil, Gangbusters: 20s-30s RPGs where your characters were normal, though the setting might have some zany Pulp over the top setting (eg, Flash Gordon or Lost Worlds type pulps)
  • Recon (RPG Inc and Palladium): realistic RPGs set in the Vietnam War
  • James Bond 007, Top Secret, Mercenaries Spies and Private Eyes: Top secret agents in a mostly realistic setting (even the gadgets were realistic for the most part).
  • Many GURPs settings: From their historical focused settings (eg WW2, Napoleonic, Celtic, Viking, etc) and even Transhuman, a vast array of settings for GURPs was in the realist camp
  • Boot Hill: Western RPG (that I only played it once but loved it) with nothing over the top like say Deadlands
  • Behind Enemy Lines: an early WW2 RPG which I only read the rules and never played, but was historical WW2 (no cthulhu, Konflict 47, DUST, or other alt WW2 kind of fantastical setting)
  • Bushido, Sengoku: Both excellent and very realistic settings for feudal era Japan (they did have rules for Shugenja/Gakusho in both systems, but you could play a very realistic setting or in Sengoku a "Chanbarra" style "rule of cool" setting)

Since I kind of stopped playing in the early 90s and only kept up via websites and reading games, I wonder when TTRPG's became deluged with the fantastical and "rule of cool"? My RPG history is somewhat unusual in that (A)D&D was more of a foot note in my playing rather than being a substantive part of it. I played more Middle Earth Role Playing than AD&D and probably almost as much Runequest (both felt far more realistic and enjoyed them more than AD&D). Looking at modern incarnations of D&D and Pathfinder, I can't help but think, "so super hero fantasy is what people like now?".

I'm definitely in the realist and even simulationist school of roleplaying, which sadly means that there's not much out there for me anymore. My favorite campaign of all time was playing a Vietnam War setting using the infamous Phoenix Command Combat System. I personally never found it super complex as everyone thinks it was, and I liked the verisimilitude and tactical crunch of the system (IMHO, it still has the best ever initiative system I've seen in an RPG). Did it play fast? Not exactly, but the tension made up for it. It also made you have to think much more tactically than in "rule of cool" or fantastical games.

For me, roleplaying is about "what if" more than escaping the drudgery of the "real" world. But I still want a world that feels real, because for me, it makes accomplishment all the more sweet. To each their own, but it does seem like the RPG no longer caters to folks like me.

And I wonder how that came to be. I wonder why in almost all RPGs now, you have to play some ubermensch who has all these cool powers to use and in settings that I honestly can't relate to? Free League is one of the few companies I know of putting out games where you are mostly still normal Joes in mostly realistic and plausible settings. From Tales From the Loop, Twilight 2000 4th edition, Aliens, to the upcoming Blade Runner. Maybe the Swedes enjoy this style of gaming too? Unfortunately, I'm not a big fan of their game engine, especially because I think it is not conducive to crunchy realistic rules. Still, I applaud their effort of making games in the mostly realistic camp.
 

Hussar

Legend
I wonder when TTRPG's became deluged with the fantastical and "rule of cool"?
I think a lot of it has to do with a few factors.

1. Highly complex, tactical RPG's are hard to run. They are. They wouldn't be highly complex if they were easy to run. And, I think a lot of people just don't have the time necessary to play these kinds of games. I know, I've certainly played my share. Heck, I've played a lot of the games on that list of yours, although I've always been largely a D&D player. But, at the end of the day, it's a lot easier to dump all that complexity into a turn based computer game or go full on tabletop wargame. Trying to do both has largely become far too time consuming for a lot of people.

2. Fantasy especially has radically changed. The Golden Age stories have been replaced by these doorstopper fantasy books where you have fantastic people doing fantastic things. Imagine if your formative fantasy stories are Harry Potter, for example. Unlike us, growing up on Conan and Lord of the Rings, we have a setting and stories that are very much full on fantastical. Never minding growing up on things like Pokemon or Magic the Gathering or various other properties. For a lot of people, their go to baseline for fantasy isn't Howard or Tolkein, but, Rowlings or Pratchett.

3. The genre is just so much broader now. Think about it this way. Go back 20 years (or so) and Steampunk didn't exist. Certainly not when I was growing up in the 70's and 80's. Clockwork robots and steam cannons? WTF? Never minding all the Post-humanist science fiction of the last couple of decades. Again, it's a reflection of the genre in general. If you were a genre fan in the 80's, like us, your exposure to SF&F was limited to your local library, a bookstore or two and a couple of movies once every few years. Maybe a TV show or two? Now, you can watch SF&F, read nothing but SF&F and still not even make the slightest dent in the sheer volume of material coming out every year. Most of it is crap, sure, but, that's always been true. And, it has allowed for genre fans to become fans of specific parts of the genre. Which, in a knock on effect, has allowed RPG's to become more and more specialized to tastes.

Think of the five biggest fantasy movies before, say 1990 that you remember seeing. Now, compare those to the biggest fantasy movies of the past three years. Marvel, Harry Potter, Witcher, so on and so forth. Giant, bombastic, stories that place a giant F on Fantastic and a really, really small r on realism. RPG's are just reflecting that.
 

MGibster

Legend
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 like having a solid basis of realism (versimilitude really), because I think it makes the fantastical elements all the more fantastic when juxtaposed against the normal.

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.”
It's whatever I think is cool!
 

ruemere

Adventurer
This is a complex subject, and I do believe that there are many possible ways to address it. Here is what works for me and for my players (usually).

1. [me] Establish baseline and the inner logic of the world.

For example, for my Miserable Secrets CortexPrime game, it is the baseline is "human".
The inner logic:
Heroes are "human" at their weakest and scale up as per CortexPrime.
Antagonists are one step above human in their specialty, they have weakside or weakness that allows "human" win.
Vague specialties (special abilities) are defined at their first use.

2. [me] During session zero explain the world in game terms. Carefully consider player questions and make adjustments.

For example, my initial presentation was seriously lacking in terms of visual aids. So to make up for it, I am going to borrow screenshots from works of art that flesh out the world.

3. [in-game] Characters interact with the world and take actions. Make notes to compensate or clarify or record niche rulings.
 

When it comes to realism, one thing I've brought up before in 5e modules, is: where are the bathrooms? And not just like toilets, but actual bathing areas as well. Both Dragon Heist and Candlekeep Mysteries have floorplans of places the PCs might very well take over as living quarters (a tavern with living quarters above, and a Mordenkainen's Magnificent Mansion), and they all have a lot of nice living space described in detail, but no bathrooms. Dragon Heist even has two nobles' mansions mapped out, but again, no bathrooms. Ironically, part of Dragon Heist takes place in Waterdeep's sewers, but apparently they're for show only as nothing seems to connect to them from above if the rest of the module is anything to go by! Yeah, bathrooms are not very adventure-y, but they and indoor plumbing do canonically exist in the Forgotten Realms, so it's just jarring for me to not see them. Heck, just leave small rooms unlabeled if necessary...
 



Hussar

Legend
I grew up with the Golden Age stuff, but I have never been a fan of the gritty realism approach to D&D.

Although Doctor Who was probably a bigger influence.
Oh, yeah. What we got into when we got into the genre probably shapes a lot of what we think now. I'll admit freely that I'm a much bigger SF fan than fantasy. I read and watch a lot more SF than fantasy by a fair margin. Things like Game of Thrones, I honestly couldn't even get through the first three episodes, although I did read the first four books. But, having finished those books, mostly because I picked up an omnibus edition, I have zero interest in going back to it.

Frankly, I'm a much bigger fan of shorter fiction to be honest. I read a lot more short stuff and novellas. So, thumping down yet another epic fantasy doorstopper is of very little interest to me. Which, in turn, shapes how I run games. Short fiction is so different from novel form and I think that really has an impact on how I design things. Setting in short fiction can play a big role, but, since you've only got so many words in a short story, you can't afford to worry about the small stuff. So a lot of the world building stuff that I see other DM's do is impressive as all get out, but, leaves me completely cold. I'm just not interested.

So, yeah, the whole "realism" thing won't work for me because why would I bother? If the setting is never that important and only serves as a place holder for the action or the characters, then, well, it's basically just movie sets. Scratch behind it and you see it's all painted wood.
 

I couldn't even get through the first chapter of the Game of Thrones novel, although the TV series started well.
Scratch behind it and you see it's all painted wood.
Keep the audience sufficiently entertained and they won't be tempted to scratch. It literally worked for 1970s Doctor Who.
 

delericho

Legend
I tend towards an admixture - the world itself is mostly realist, but the PCs and their immediate environs are much more fantastical.

It's more or less like the very early MCU films, where they're set in a mostly "real world", but you have a handful of super-powered heroes and villains running about.
 

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