Disbelief 2: The Disbeliefening

The Suspension Bridge of Disbelief
Thanks to flickr user DaveOnFlickr! CC BY-SA 2.0

A few weeks ago, a commenter lamented that I didn’t give specific examples when it comes to the suspension of disbelief, breaking it, and potentially getting it back. I aim to misbehave please, and thus I’ll try to expand upon that idea a bit more. Here are some sure-fire ways to break the suspension of disbelief and rip your players out of the story:


Clunky Mechanics

Ultimately, they are called role-playing games, and there have to be some rules otherwise it’s just shared storytelling (nothing wrong with that, either). When there are rules, especially rules which take a lot of time to play out, that are difficult to understand, don’t really mesh with game very well, or are more tedious than actually fun, you run the risk of pulling back the curtain on the fantasy world you’ve delicately set up. There are many examples of crappy rules, but one that immediately springs to mind is the grappling system from D&D 3.5.

Now, grappling is a big part of 3.5 D&D. Many monsters do it, and they do it very well. It’s difficult for a seasoned player to create a character that doesn’t have some way of escaping from a grapple. However, the rules are quite horrible:

1. Initiate the grapple by moving into your opponent’s square.

2. They make an attack of opportunity. If they hit and deal damage, you fail to grapple.

3. Make a touch attack to see if you can “grab” them.

4. Make opposed grapple checks to see if you can actually “grapple” them.

You could argue that the whole system of attacks of opportunity is clunky and breaks the SoD, and I wouldn’t fight you too much. I think they make sense (let your guard down, get attacked) but sometimes it seems like it would have just been better to give you an AC debuff instead. Whatever. The problem with grapple, for me, always came around step 3 and 4. You have to make two checks, one to see if you can even be in a position to grab your opponent, and then another to see, ostensibly, if you can hold on.

I don’t know why this couldn’t be handled with one check. The reason for the above rules makes sense (grab, then grapple), but ultimately it pulled my players out of the game because everyone always seemed to forget there was a touch attack involved, then a grapple check, and then you didn’t really even do anything that round, instead you had to wait until next round when you had to make another grapple check to maybe do something to your opponent (like stab him with a dagger or bite his face off). Suffice to say, grappling was extremely clunky, and what exactly you could do while you were in a grapple (cast spell? use a weapon? move the grapplers?) was constantly a question.

A good rule of thumb here is that if you have to constantly reference the rule from the rulebook, you’re breaking the suspension of disbelief; if you have to step out of character to look through the rulebook for what you’re able to do, that sucks and it has brought you out of the game. You stop visualizing what your character is doing to that orc and go elsewhere.

Pathfinder made it a bit better (took away the opposed rolls), but not much.

An internally consistent and believable world

Watching a film like Alien is a great science-fiction experience; the staging and sets are terrific, the technology is dated but believable, the characters act in understandable ways, and have reasonable limitations. Last week I saw the movie Lockout, and I enjoyed it, but there was no world into which I could get immersed. There were just too many plot holes, bad sci-fi moments, and unbelievable characters for me to really get into it.

And that’s ultimately the point of the role-playing game: you want everyone to be immersed in a world different than their own.

Science fiction obviously has the most trouble with this. It’s a huge nail in the coffin of many sci-fi shows and movies when they try to explain why something works this way or that way. Screenwriters are not scientists, and they often flub the science; for someone with a sincere interest or technical background, you immediately might say “Hey, that’s not physically possible”, and it’s like hitting the brakes when you’re flying down the freeway. It jars you.

We’re perfectly willing to believe the world of The Matrix because it is presented in a believable way; it becomes harder and harder to believe what is going on in the “real world” as the series goes on because the technology gets more and more unbelievable.

Action has the same problem. Our hero gets shot 5-10 times and is able to shrug off the pain and crippling blood loss enough to save the heroine. Now, sometimes the story is so overwhelmingly awesome that we’re willing to overlook these issues; but when the story lets up for even a moment, our spidey-sense tingle and we say “something’s not right here”, and that’s a problem.

But the story is not necessarily going to be your savior. If you spend months developing a PC as an antagonist, flesh out his personality, and then at some point just completely veer off the tracks, your players might get fed up. The world is an unpredictable place, but when you’re refereeing a fantasy world, there’s little frame of reference for what is possible and what exists other than what the GM tells the players. If you say one thing this session (all Orcs are evil) and then a few sessions later you subvert that axiom (actually this guy you killed was a Good Orc), then players will feel betrayed. Sometimes this can work in the context of the world, but it needs to be boldly clear that CHARACTER knowledge can be wrong, but PLAYER knowledge is sacrosanct. You can have the characters believe that there are no elves in the world, but you can’t tell your player that he can’t be an elf because there are none, and then make one of the NPCs a prominent elf.

The players ultimately make decisions based off the logic of the game world. If you have a game world where there is no teleportation magic, then players trying to defend a city might fortify the outer walls and seal up the sewers to prevent enemies from infiltrating. If you turn around and have a team of teleporting mages show up in the middle of town, there is going to be a disconnect there that threatens to break the suspension of disbelief; that is, the players will start to doubt the information they have about the world. When they doubt the internal logic of the world, when the world stops making sense, then the immersion is gone.

This is not to say that you as a GM must be infallible. We all make mistakes and design things that seem really cool, only to later realize that there’s NO reason at all why the Elves would build a city like this. To hearken back to an earlier post, there must be a reason why behind the existence of every game element, otherwise your players will eventually find the cracks, pry them apart and pull the curtain away.


How to Keep Your Players in Suspension

I don’t know if there is a really easy way to keep them there. You can’t ban all jokes at the table and have a serious mood, you can’t just eradicate all mistakes and errors in judgment, you can’t undo your misspeaks, and you can’t always just do away with your clunky mechanics (though you can simplify them).

What you can do is to try to be consistent. Don’t treat players differently. Don’t treat characters in the world differently just to make something a more challenging encounter. When your players truly solve a puzzle or beat one of your challenges through clever thinking, tip your hat and move on; don’t Deus Ex Machina up a way that it didn’t work or that the big bad somehow got away. Treat your characters like they are part of the world because they are.


Coming Up:

In the next few weeks I’ll be reviewing a few products, a couple of books from Pathfinder, and a few games, both online and off. So stay tuned!

2 thoughts on “Disbelief 2: The Disbeliefening

Add yours

  1. 4e streamlined it nicely:
    1- Be adjacent (next to or in the same square as)
    2- Hit with a basic strength based unarmed attack
    3- Did you do 1&2? They are grappled!

    The escape from grapple was nice too
    a) Force either character to move away from the other – grapple broken!
    b) Victim makes a skill check vs something (I forget what it is – I think maybe Fort defense), a success=free and if in the same space as grappler and breaks free may shift 1 square.


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