Role-playing games, by and large, are fantasy-based experiences. I’m using ‘fantasy’ here not in the genre sense, but in the literary sense. That is, any story or plot that takes place outside of reality, and asks the reader to believe in the possibility of things that do not exist or have not happened. So if I know that my games are taking place outside of reality, why do I feel the compulsive need to force them to make empirical sense?
The Science Fiction Paradox
To whit: Science fiction is called precisely that because it is plausible that many of the events that genre describes could occur in our reality. In fact, much of what was introduced and proposed by science fiction writers decades ago has come to pass. Many of those authors shared a complex understanding of our universe and how it works, and incorporated that scientific knowledge into their books. It shouldn’t be all that surprising, then, that some of their prognostications about a future Earth would be realized, because the potential for their dreams always existed in our reality.
In fact, the scholarly emphasis on the ‘science’ in ‘science fiction’ has created the partial expectation in popular culture that many of our favorite franchises and sagas should fit within the bounds of the possible. As evidence, consider the lengthy discourse that emerged several years ago regarding the final moments of Star Wars: A New Hope, and how the dramatic destruction of the Death Star was not believable because deep space lacks the oxygen to produce such an explosion. No specific mention was made of the talking tribal teddy bears who aided in the destruction of the second Death Star, but I can only imagine that someone so immersed in astrophysics could make a compelling argument about the statistical probability of intelligent life on the forest moon of Endor.
Add to that a recent NPR interview given by rock star astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, where the man who demoted Pluto also explains why it makes perfect scientific sense that only Thor can wield Thor’s hammer in the summer uber-smash The Avengers. (Spoiler alert: It has something to do with the density of neutron matter.) Apparently, when Dr. Tyson isn’t guest starring on The Big Bang Theory, he’s out watching movies- then calling James Cameron to tell him that he needs to ‘fix the stars’ in Titanic before it was released in 3D. And he wasn’t talking about hiring a therapist for Kate Winslet.
In short, the phenomenon of an idea that has seemed like ‘fantasy’ in the past passing through ‘fiction’ to become ‘fact’ is endemic in our society. I grew up on Star Wars and comic books, so maybe part of my need is just programmed by pop culture.
A Nerd by Any Other Name
When I hear stories like those above, my instincts scream “NERD!” at the top of their psychological lungs. To hold a fictional film to such a rigid empirical standard seems dishonest, and carries the potential to damage one’s enjoyment of the experience. Why would anyone inflict this intense scientific scrutiny on a leisure past time? These questions burn in my brain; and then I’m reminded of my own factoid fixation when it comes to RPGs.
Did it really matter in my fan fiction that the constellations my Half-elf Ranger was said to be looking at could actually be viewed from his geographical location on Earth? We can ask Dr. Tyson the next time we see him, but I’m betting his answer is “yes.”
Was it so important to discover which heavy metal, readily available in the late 19th century, had the highest density and therefore the highest relative weight by volume for use in a potion? In case you’re wondering, the easy answer is pure gold; an answer that filled me with nerdy delight, given my PC’s history in a family of jewelers.
Can the need really exist to research the descendants of a dead Puritan preacher to find out if any of them actually ended up in England, or check Google Maps to find out if the London church my character attends is within walking distance of her family home near Picadilly Circus? If you’re planning to walk the 4.2 miles, I’m sure you’d like to know that it’ll take you an hour to get to church.
There are a myriad of other examples I could give, but all of them follow the same formula: “Do I really need to know ________ in order to have fun playing __________?” Curiously, all of them have the same conclusion: “Who cares? I looked it up anyway.”
Fantasy + Fact = Immersion
So why do I keep doing it? Heck, why does everyone in my group do it? (And you know you do.) The answer, I suspect, is the same that James Cameron would give if asked why he spent a couple extra million to make sure the heavenly bodies in Titanic 3-D looked just right. (Again, not talking about Kate Winslet.)
Strange as it may seem, the more a story, even one that takes place outside reality, is grounded in empirical data and supported by accepted facts, the faster we’ll fall into it. A story’s ability to mirror the reality we’ve already accepted is directly proportionate to our willingness to immerse ourselves in it. You can call it believability, or connection, or familiarity, but the bottom line is getting the audience to buy into the events and emotions that are woven into the tale you tell.
That audience may be millions of people in theater seats, or it may be five players around a table. Drawing others into the story, however, remains the universal goal of all storytellers. The curious thing about RPGs is that everyone involved is helping to tell the story; it’s not just a director, or an actor, or an animator. The GM and the players all have a hand is creating the story, so the desire in each individual to have the others relate to, connect with, and welcome in their characters drives much of what goes into the creation process. Everyone wishes to have the others willingly immerse themselves in their part of the tale.
The more ‘real’ one can make their story seem, the more investment others will make into it. That mutual connection seems well worth a few laps around the internet. I mean, if it’s good enough for Dr. Tyson, who am I to argue?