The Suspension of Disbelief

Thanks to flickr user the justified sinner! CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The idea of the “suspension of disbelief”, of which you’ve surely heard, is quite simple: in order for any form of art to be effective, it’s viewer (or listener, or whatever) needs to, in some way, suspend his disbelief.

The idea was first articulated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria, which can be found here:

it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

While Coleridge was writing particularly about the inclusion of elements macabre and supernatural in his writing, the idea holds firm today: for example, when you watch a movie, you willingly suspend your disbelief (in fact, you are simply watching rapidly-changing images projected on a large screen) and buy into the idea that Neo and Agent Smith really are fighting.

Coleridge’s idea of poetic faith is important. I think he means that there’s an implicit bargain between the poet and the reader; the poet is going to be limited by his medium or his topic, yet the reader is going to give him the benefit of the doubt anyway.

This neatly parallels the relationship between the game-master and the player. The GM sets up the world (his poetry, let’s say) and the player experiences it. Obviously, you are (most likely) not a barbarian, so there is some willing suspension of disbelief there when the game calls for you to play one. You’re not in a fantasy tavern, you’re not slamming back ale, and you’re not actually seducing wenches. (And if your gaming experience does involve all these things, do you have an extra seat at the table?)

Of course, the player needs to be suspending way more disbelief, as most of the games we play are fantastical in some way or another, whether they involve swords and sorcery, eldritch horrors, or simple standoffs and desperation. However, this comes easier than it sounds. Most of us who play role-playing games naturally want to suspend our disbelief. We take the word of the game-master or the sourcebook as the gospel. We want our games to be fun, so we’re willing to accept whatever ridiculous, convoluted worlds in which we end up playing.

After the jump I’ll discuss a couple of ways that the Suspension of Disbelief might affect your games, whether you know it or not.

Mood and the Suspension of Disbelief

Have you ever tried to run a scary game and have it devolve into a slapstick action shoot-em-up? Have you ever tried to run or play a serious fantasy game of court intrigue and royal diplomacy, only to have characters named Sir Barf and Lady Moldybottom show up?

When the intended mood gets broken, that certainly shatters the suspension that many of the players and GM have worked toward. It goes both ways: a slapstick game can be disrupted just as a Gothic mystery can.

Having a mood change can actually be a powerful storytelling device; it casts in relief the events that have come before, reminds us that even in a comedy world, there can be serious problems., or that despite how gloomy Ravenloft might be, there is still some goodness in the hearts of the people of Barovia. Don’t be afraid to change it up, but tread carefully. After getting accustomed to a particular mood and setting, it is not so easy for everyone to switch gears – some people will experience that inevitable grinding that often comes with the gear change. It’s our job as GMs (and players too) to make those transitions as smooth as possible.

Lack of Internal Consistency

I’d day that the number one killer to the suspension of disbelief is the lack of internal consistency in a setting or rules-set. Nothing will turn your players off faster than making the world in which they play seem capricious and based off whim rather than a coherent set of guidelines.

I find that this can happen most easily with games set in (ostensibly) the actual world, or a near-actual analog to the modern world. Since everyone has some experience with the ways things work in the modern world, if they don’t work in the fictional modern world, they’ll quickly be unwilling (or unable) to suspend their disbelief for you.

One particular example that I had sometimes was the treatment of the characters by law enforcement. Several times, the players simply assumed that since they were innocent, nothing bad would happen to them by the police. Obviously, we know that’s not necessarily the case, but at the time I wanted to make the confrontation with the suspicious cops a bit of a challenge. Since the players told the truth to the cops, and had nothing to hide, they assumed that they would be let go. But it didn’t work out like that and I think it hurt the plot a bit.

I group this situation with “internal consistency” because it’s important that, somewhere along the line, the players understand the parameters of the world/setting with which they’re interacting (or in my case, which they were steadily burning down). When there is a disconnect, either because of poor communication, lack of internal consistency or logic, or simply making an uninteresting setting, players will fade out of character and go looking for the Mountain Dew.

Make Things Believable

I mentioned last week “cartoonish” evil characters, and how they really don’t do it for me. It’s personal taste, of course, but that breaks my suspension of disbelief. I have trouble reconciling a fantasy world or an evil supervillain who has no motive for being evil other than simply being evil.

It’s a facet to the internal consistency of the world that things in it – people, places, events, motives, objects, organizations, desires, goals – are believable within the internal logic of the world. In a game like NWoD, it makes sense for there to be a Machiavellian antediluvian controlling the political maneuverings of New Orleans. In a game like Spycraft, that makes a hell of a lot less sense and stretches the limits of believability. Gun-Fu is more acceptable in Feng Shui than in Call of Cthulhu.

If you tell your characters that your fantasy world has no gods, and then they come up against a powerful adversary who got his power through worshiping an evil god, that’s not going to play well (unless, perhaps, the crux of the plot is the discovery of said gods). It’s not really fair to your players if your first level wizard can cast Wish either. Anytime the rules of the world are applied inconsistently, it’s going to shatter the illusion.

No one likes deus ex machina for precisely this reason: it shatters the carefully-built suspension of disbelief.

Tying It Together

Of course, the “willing suspension of disbelief” is just a theory. Obviously, you don’t fully suspend your disbelief when roleplaying, because you don’t actually become the characters and are harmed when they are harmed, and so on.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to say exactly how much control you have over whether you can suspend your disbelief, and particularly whose responsibility it is to ensure the suspension. My arguments above seem to imply that it’s the GM’s responsibility to ensure it, but many would argue that it’s the reader/player’s responsibility to suspend it themselves – to take what the poet offers as it is.

Whether you accept the theory or not, I think it’s undeniable that the best games are the ones where every0ne is on the same page. The players are picking up what the GM is putting down, and everyone’s creating a shared story, not 6 or 8 different stories that intersect. As long as you keep that in mind, you’ll do fine, regardless of who suspends what.

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