Behind the Screen

Behind the Screen: Suspension of Disbelief

As I start this project, I’m going to try and hit on some of my “hot-button” issues before things get banal (or for the optimists, entertaining)…and suspension of disbelief is a big one. My problem with suspension of disbelief is that, well, I can’t. Maybe it’s from being an engineer, maybe it’s from a stubborn unwillingness to accept things at face value, but whatever it is, I have a remarkable lack of whimsy for someone so attracted to tabletop gaming. The result of that has been, if you had me as a player and you broke my already tenuous suspension of disbelief, it was going down.

Case in point: a few weeks ago, the GM of a Cyberpunk game I’m playing in trotted out his big MacGuffin. In the Cyberpunk 2020 universe, major drug crops like opium and coca were wiped out by a designer bioplague, either to rid the world of their menace, or so the corporations could make more money on their designer drugs. Either way, the GM had a scientist come to the players looking for protection, and through some misadventure we discovered he was trying to pawn off the last real cocaine that existed in the world. Big honking plot hook, we jumped on it, awesome. Except for one small thing. The scientist had seeds for coca plants in addition to some of the product, and some nifty genetic formulae for reproducing the seeds. The scientist was keeping these formulas as insurance, as “the seeds would not yield any plants beyond the first, limiting their potential.” Two problems. First, seedless plants are not made from seeds, they’re made from selectively bred trimmings of seeded plants. Second, coca plants aren’t annuals, so the plants won’t just die after one year. Me, being somewhat of a pedantic dick, called the GM on this, and there went a half hour of our game.

It’s a very small example, and hopefully you won’t have someone as nitpicky as me in your group (if I was GMing myself, I’d be ticked). But the point stands that inaccuracies erode the believability of your game. While a mistake about the botany of cocaine probably won’t make a difference most of the time, what will is when you screw up something that you, the GM, put there. This is doubly true for setting information. Settings need to be consistent, because that’s the only way players learn how to operate in them. If you can bribe the guard half the time because the GM never did remember what he said about that, the least you can do is claim the PCs met two different guards. Otherwise, the curtain begins to fall away, and metagame thinking prevails. While some games are all about the meta (Paranoia comes to mind), if you’re trying to tell a story or set up some dramatic energy in your game, metagame thinking kills it. The easiest example of how negatively it can impact your game is character death.

Games stand all over the place on character death. I both let it happen and use it in some instances, but try to avoid random, senseless death (except where it makes sense given the setting or tone). I don’t, however, actively fudge rolls specifically to avoid PC or NPC death. For PC death this is a matter of choice (there are play styles where it doesn’t make sense for the PCs to die, ever), but for NPCs it’s a matter of metagaming. The minute you save an NPC, the players know that NPC is important…or even worse, plot-immune (especially if a PC action would have killed them).

This is less of a modern-specific topic than the last post was, but it’s especially important to modern games because suspension of disbelief is that much more difficult. In a fantasy game, players have to suspend their disbelief to accept the setting at all, regardless of how well-planned and consistent it is. But in a modern game, especially one without any departures into the supernatural, your players won’t be suspending their disbelief about the setting so much as using their pre-existing schemas to judge it. Any place where it differs from the modern world they actually live in should be laid out beforehand (In Cyberpunk there are cyberlimbs, in Vampire: The Requiem, there are…vampires). When your players accept that you are trying to run your game in a setting resembling the world they live in, they start using their knowledge of that world to play their characters. Once they start doing that, the possibilities are endless…because no one’s constrained to what you wrote anymore, they have years of experience to inform their character decisions. These are the games I like best, where everyone is pushing the campaign in a different direction, and the GM is more of a referee than a storyteller. But for that to work, the GM and the players have to be on equal footing…players suspend disbelief when they trust that the GM is running the game in a way that everyone can interact with equally. Just because the GM has more pieces to play with does not mean he gets to have more ultimate say once the game has started.

As a GM, my best advice would be to take good notes and let players correct you. Always be willing to let your planned ingame events crash and burn, because your players will outmaneuver you. It may be frustrating at first, but scrambling to improv around players who completely outmaneuvered you is a lot more fun than steering them back on the path, and having the game’s energy fizzle because there’s a subconscious realization that you’re just going to get your way. This has probably been said before, railroading (the easiest way to kill suspension of disbelief) is a common topic for roleplayers because everyone knows a GM who does it. Even if I’m not saying anything new, it’s a good insight into my style: lots of conflict, no guarantees, and lots of things blow up (including all vestiges of my original plots).

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