Games, plots and the death of Bin Laden

“It was agreed, that my endeavors 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.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 1817

Within a few hours of the announcement of Bin Laden’s death yesterday morning (my time), I started hearing several conspiracy theories.

Some people didn’t believe it had happened at all. Some said the timing was intended to boost President Obama’s re-election campaign, or deflect attention from the killing of Colonel Gaddafi’s son in Libya. Others are questioning the role of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) in hiding Bin Laden. The ISI itself says it was deeply involved in planning the raid. Some question whether Bin Laden’s body was really disposed of at sea, and the speed of the disposal – usually suggesting this means the killing didn’t actually happen, or didn’t happen they way the US government says it did.

To some people, these theories seem laughable, but to others they seem plausible, even likely.

I was struck by the simililarity of some of these theories to plotting techniques I’ve used in games, probably because I’ve spent some time recently trying to deconstruct the way we use plots in games.

All it takes to believe in conspiracies is a distrust of authority (or the official version of events) and a willingness to consider alternatives. For those who consider conspiracies in passing, facts aren’t as important as gut feeling (after all, who says those ‘facts’ are true). For those who dig deeper, new facts or suspicions may come to light which appear to contradict or undermine the official statements.

All of that is in the real world.

As gamers, we are predisposed to accept conspiracies in our games. We call this ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, a term first used by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. We want there to be a master villain behind the villain we’ve just defeated, we’re willing to accept he’s a treacherous official of the town we’re defending and when we defeat him we’re willing to believe he was part of a larger plot or secret society engaged in a bid for power/wealth/demonic forces. We’re willing to believe all this because it means the storyline, and hence the game, continues.

The difference between a gamer and a real-world conspiracy theorist as that gamers accept what happens in the game, rather than believe it. We can get away with plots that seem highly unlikely in the real world because the required standard of belief is lower.

A GM can keep peeling back layers of plot as long as he and the other players have the interest and inspiration to do so, and as long as they can suspend their disbelief.
In order to help them suspend disbelief, we rely on what Coleridge called a sufficient semblance of truth, more commonly known to gamers and the modern litarary world as verisimilitude, and to Stephen Colbert as truthiness.

The key concept of verisimilitude is ‘sufficient’. Once you’ve established an acceptable level of plausibility, you can relax a little. Each group’s – sometimes each player’s – idea of what’s sufficient will be different, of course, and it helps the GM a lot to know what the required base is.

If verisimilitude assists suspension of disbelief, then the opposite – something that hinders it – is what I term a glitch, as in the hotel scene in The Matrix (“A deja vu is usually a glitch in the Matrix. It happens when they change something.”) Glitches should be avoided if at all possible.

I suspect, though haven’t tested the idea, that the acceptable level of verisimilitude, or the number of acceptable glitches, may be linked in some way with the group’s creative agenda. Sim groups may be the least tolerant of glitches, and gamist groups most tolerant.

It may be more accurate to say that what constitutes a glitch varies depending on the group’s creative agenda. Sim gamers don’t like the kind of metagaming discussion that Narrativist gamers thrive on. Gamists won’t like something they consider cheating by the GM.

Having a glitch burst a player’s willingness to suspend disbelief is unpleasant. Even worse, it’s contagious if the player acts on his or her disbelief. I’ve watched an entire group become visibly unhappy after a player spoke out about a glitch I, as the GM, wasn’t able to paper over to his satisfaction.

It happened when I was running a published scenario at short notice and with little preparation (the old story – I allowed myself to be pressured into GMing a pick-up because no one else was willing to).

The scenario featured a very large dragon guarding the tomb of a legendary sleeping king (the writer was obviously inspired by the King Arthur legend). The dragon wasn’t there to be fought – more of a riddling gatekeeper, a talking encounter. Most of the players seemed to accept the encounter for what it was. One pointed out the dragon was too big to fit through the entrance to the tomb.

“Ah yes,” I replied, speaking as the dragon and thinking on my feet, “but when [Merlin equivalent] bound me here centuries ago, I was much smaller.”
Enough to keep the suspension of disbelief? I hoped so, but…

“What do you eat?”
“The power that bound me here sustains me.”
“Ah,” said the player, deeply and obviously disappointed. “Magic.”
The disappointment spread through the other players and, as I watched it, to me as well.

If I’d had more preparation time, I’d have noticed the potential glitch and changed the encounter.

If I’d been thinking better, I’d have appealed to the player’s ego to keep him buying into the game – consider what might have happened had the exchange gone like this:
“What do you eat?”
“Do you seek to test me, little human? You expect me to reveal the source of my power?” And, out of character, I tell the player his character notices the dragon moving to keep itself between the party and a rune-engraved pillar.

The answer to the question is still magic, but now it’s also a challenge and potential edge. It’s up to the players to decide if they want to take up the challenge (it was a very big dragon), but if they get to the stone they might weaken or destroy the dragon – or hold it to ransom in return for knowledge, some of its treasure or whatever.
Maybe that would have kept the player happy.

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