There are moments in pencil and paper role playing games (RPGs) that some gamers would call questionable. Sometimes things get silly, causing players to lose focus on the game. Many pencil and paper groups expect a certain amount of seriousness and players can become upset or leave a group if the tone is interrupted too frequently. The same gamers, however, may find no fault in works like Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, where you steal a “horse wiener” from a zombie, then use it as equipment. What accounts for these conflicting views? Suspension of disbelief and the expectation that belief will be suspended can sometimes be to blame. The term is attributed to Samuel Coleridge, a poet from the 18th century. The phrase means a willingness to put your skepticism on hold while you immerse yourself in an impossible work of fiction. We unknowingly place a threshold on exactly which rules we are willing to disregard and when.
Think of watching the Indiana Jones movie series afresh. Why did the general audience love the Ark of the Covenant having insanely destructive power but hate Indiana surviving a nuclear blast in a later movie by locking himself in a fridge? The stage for the Ark is set when they imply it is magical. Because we don’t base our understanding of it in reality, it is easier to suspend our disbelief and enjoy the scene. Nuclear weapons, on the other hand, are well understood. We know factually, lead lining or no, the fridge would be blown to pieces and our hero melted beyond DNA recognition. Even if he was somehow miraculously sheltered from the blast, the impact back and forth inside the fridge from the bomb’s concussion should be fatal.
So where does that leave those of us in the land of RPGs? Consider the players first. Some groups are more serious than others, expecting a more complete immersion into the game world before them. I play with two groups weekly. One very serious and the other casual. This wasn’t caused by predetermined ground rules but rather is a reflection of the players in each group. Expectations have an important role in how much a player’s suspension of disbelief will cover. Five minutes into Disgaea you know that it will be silly throughout. You accept it and laugh at the horse wiener joke, or you put it down because your expectations were not fulfilled. Either way you know very quickly that it will not offer the same depth of immersion that other entertainment options bring.
Magic and supernatural explanations are very useful to a Game Master. In a fantasy world where anything could happen, people don’t have as much difficulty accepting strange events if they are blamed on magic. When players come across a dragon, they are concerned with how they will survive. They don’t ask how something so heavy is kept aloft by such tiny wings. Dragons aren’t real and in Pathfinder dragons are magical. Therefore players accept the suspension unknowingly and move on into the “how do I kill it” phase.
Playing to the differences in gaming groups is another key. Some groups might not care if the suspension is broken occasionally, where the serious gamer mentioned earlier would be dissatisfied. Mature or serious groups can get into complex scenarios, leaving players to wrestling with questions of morality and true evil. A silly group or an adult running a game for children may have adventures akin to episodes of Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers.
It is important to recognize that either option is acceptable under the right conditions but not all conditions are right for each scenario. Each has unique benefits and brings value to the time spent. Silly gaming can be very relaxing. You don’t need to worry as much about what the people in the town think of you, leaving you to focus on goofing around and being casual. Serious gaming lets the mind grapple with complex ideas in a way that our often desensitized audience can’t navigate otherwise.
My advice is to go into new games with intentionally unset expectations. If you can delay that process until after the first session, you can set your expectations in alignment with your group. Thus increasing your enjoyment of the game.
Author unlisted. “Samuel Taylor Coleridge.” Academy of American Poets. Retrieved March 29, 2014. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/292