“I reject your reality, and substitute my own.” – Paul Bradford, The Dungeonmaster (later quoted by Mythbuster Adam Savage)

Matt’s recent article on reality got me thinking. We game masters define or at least direct the collective reality of our gaming group; defining the rules of magic or super-science is old hat.

So why are we regularly tripped when someone asks why the goblins are multiplying far too soon to have recovered from their last butt-kicking?

Because – Science!

A shared artificial reality is easier to deal with when it resembles our own. Among many other things, we all know that most plants photosynthesize sunlight, that mammals nurse their young, and that Newton, Darwin, and various eggheads do a pretty good job of explaining physics, biology, geography, and other aspects of reality. Gravity and basic biology make the game much more predictable without our having to consult rulebooks.

Of course, when the game requires it (magic, FTL travel, etc.), we regularly break or bend the heck out of the laws of nature. We even ignore the cold hard reality when warm and fuzzy genre conventions are much more lovable and fun.

And now, for something completely different…

For centuries, the wisest among us believed in spontaneous generation and other obsolete scientific and biological theories. We borrow from these concepts all the time (aether and the four classical elements, etc.), so go back to the well for more.

  • You’ve got a highly intelligent dragon in a closed cave, without a bathroom? Not a problem, because dragons don’t actually poop. Frankly, they rarely eat (except for sport and the occasional tasty virgin). Instead, they absorb energy from lying on piles of precious metals and stones.
  • Tired of that awkward conversation every time the party kills off the men of the goblin clan? Begone, idealist-utilitarian philosophical conflict! Goblins spring fully-grown and evil as can be, from wherever demonic blood has been spilled. (At least some of them do, which can lead to further awkward situations.)
  • You don’t want to map out the rest of the world. What do you mean, ‘rest of the world’? This is it. Travel any farther, and you’ll sail off the edge. Oh, there’s the Astral Sea, but that requires a really powerful wizard.
  • Don’t feel limited to medieval concepts, either. Where do those underground critters get their energy? That faintly glowing stone that lights the caverns also emits a radiation that black-skinned critters absorb, just like plants absorb sunlight. Stay underground for enough generations, and your offspring will develop black skin, too.

Many of the iconic parts of gaming are impractical and nearly impossible, but they’re also a lot of fun. You can’t explain away everything with junk science, but you can smooth away the most irritating parts, and keep your players happy. And that’s the goal, not to redefine truth, but to make it ring true.

The V Word

Which brings us to Verisimilitude, the word that gamers both love and hate. We love it, because it describes the feeling of an internally consistent reality (or close to it). We hate it, because it’s often used as an artificial benchmark or a crowbar to wreck an otherwise enjoyable adventure.

Verisimilitude is the limit of redefining reality, and this is where the artistry lies. Don’t redefine it so much that it’s unrecognizable, but resist the urge to force your sense of wonder and imagination into a clinical box. It’s your world, play with it, but retain some internal consistency and make sure that you and the players are enjoying themselves.

Have you used unscientific explanations of otherwise impossible events in a game? Do you consciously or subconsciously try to explain your reality with modern scientific theories? How are those things working for you? Sound off in the comments and let us know!