Storyboard: On the art of verisimilitude in MMO roleplaying

We know what we know.

Those of you who remember this column from Massively-that-was are invited to take a shot, as was the running joke. Because it turned out I said the word verisimilitude a lot.

Verisimilitude, aside from being a fun six-syllable word that rolls right off the tongue, is a pretty vital concept in roleplaying. It’s something that I talked about a lot in the column in its original incarnation because it’s vital for roleplaying. And yet it occurred to me as I was thinking about this new column that I’ve never actually explained the word in any depth. It was just assumed you could look it up.

You can look it up. You know where Google is. But knowing what verisimilitude literally means (the appearance of being true or real) doesn’t really explain why verisimilitude is something relevant to think about. So let’s talk about the art of verisimilitude, and as I am pathologically incapable of jumping right into the point without surrounding examples, I’m going to start by examining a line from Joe vs. the Volcano.

First and foremost, if you haven’t ever seen that movie, go out and make that happen. Throw a rock at someone if you have to. It’s a spectacular film and probably my favorite movie of all time. But luckily, you don’t need to see it to understand the line that I’m talking about, which comes in during the middle of the second act from the second of three characters Meg Ryan plays in the movie. To wit:

This is one of those typical conversations where we’re all open and sharing our innermost thoughts and it’s all bullshit and a lie and it doesn’t cost you anything!

That’s a great line. It’s biting, it’s incisive, and in context it actually highlights the major problem that both Joe himself and Angelica are dealing with, which comes down to an issue of verisimilitude. But it is also a notable line because for all that it’s a great line, it sounds nothing like the way that human beings actually talk with one another.

It just feels like it does.

Because it's not real.

Verisimilitude as a word contains the “sim” right in there, which keys you into a key part of the concept. Verisimilitude is not actually about conforming to reality. Reality is messy, frequently impossible to conform to, and often deeply unsatisfying if you manage it. We don’t want our roleplaying to conform to reality; we want it to conform to what feels like reality.

How often have you roleplayed a character getting sick with an intestinal bug? How many times have you sat down and decided that for the next several days your character will just be miserably suffering through a nasty sickness that isn’t life-threatening but is unpleasant and gross? I’m going to guess it’s not often. (If I’m wrong, you don’t need to correct me.)

The point of verisimilitude is that you aren’t doing that because it sounds gross and not fun. But you are creating a character who people feel is real, who could plausibly experience that brand of unpleasantness, who gets tired or bored or cranky or whatever without forcing you to actually play all of that out in agonizing detail.

It’s all something that pretends to be real whilst being fake. An illusion, a matter of letting you see things that aren’t there and illustrate elements that exist chiefly in your mind. Verisimilitude. Seems simple, doesn’t it?

Except that you might want to scroll up and re-read that quote because it hints at the downside of verisimilitude. It might only be something that feels real, but it feels real.

Intellectually, we’re more or less all capable of separating reality from character actions. A character hating your characters does not mean that it’s a comment on you as a person, and we know that. But if a character embarks on a nasty and extended smear campaign against your characters, odds are high that you’re going to feel a bit put out over it, even though you know full well that it’s not a real situation. It’s make-believe. It’s dolls.

And yet if you’ve got that emotional connection with these characters and it feels real, it’s really hard not to extend that even just a tiny bit and think “this sort of is about me.” Especially if the character is consciously imbued with some of your characteristics and is being smeared because of those elements that help with the emotional connection.

Even when that emotional connection is being violently severed.

I talk a lot about enforcing the boundary between in-character and out-of-character actions because it’s important. But I also talk a lot about the importance of verisimilitude, and the whole point of that is to tear at those boundaries and make things far more permeable. Even if you were perfect about boundaries, odds are good that you’ll develop fondness for another player who roleplays well, seek them out more often, and strike up friendships based in no small part on interactions that the two of you didn’t really have.

The illusion of reality is powerful stuff. And it’s very easy to fall into a trap wherein you’re so caught up in verisimilitude that you either lose sight of the fact that it is all an illusion, or you lose sight of the fact that it’s under your control, and your Blood Elf is only being a jerk so long as you decide that’s what should happen here.

Your characters speak to you with enough creative spark, but they don’t dictate what happens next. They just give you an idea of what should happen next. And more often than not, speaking from years of writing, you have a whole lot of veto power if things are moving in an unpleasant direction.

Verisimilitude is the second most important thing in roleplaying. The first is everyone having fun. And that means you can’t sacrifice the first on the altar of the second without making versimilitude into an albatross around your neck.

None of this is to say that verisimilitude is bad, obviously; it wouldn’t be at the point of a meme-worthy joke for my repeated use of the word if it were bad. It’s actually an advantage for RP, and it lets you have much more rich and resonant scenes over time. But it is something you need to have a care about, something that can easily seduce you with the idea of seeming real until you forget that it isn’t real.

And it isn’t real. It’s not supposed to be real. It’s supposed to create a good illusion and the feeling of reality without the parts of reality that you would prefer to leave behind, things like intestinal bugs and random cruelty and so forth. Sure, there’s still cruelty, but it’s the kind that has a purpose and an intent behind it.

In the end, it’s a matter of remembering that the illusion is just that and shouldn’t be overvalued. And it’s the illusion that’s more important, that feeling that this is realistic even when it isn’t. Also, it’s about saying a six-syllable word that rolls off the tongue. That’s just fun.

If you’re an old hand at roleplaying in MMOs, you can look to Eliot Lefebvre’s Storyboard as an irregular column addressing the common peaks and pitfalls possible in this specialized art of interaction. If you’ve never tried it before, you can look at it as a peek into how the other half lives. That’s something everyone can enjoy, just like roleplaying itself.

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Sarah Cushaway

I started roleplaying in the early days of AOL chat rooms and Yahoo Groups–free form play-by-post stuff. Then came MMOs and I dabbled with RPing in those, too. Had a fairly good time in WoW the first few years and EQ2 the first few years doing so, but then the nature of those games changed and the community focus changed. That includes RP.

Also, admittedly, since publishing a few books and going beyond surface level creative writing (NOT a knock on RP–it’s what got me interested in “serious” writing after all), I have a hard time stepping back into worlds and roles predefined for me by the game’s setting. Especially now that I’m old and most of the RP crowd are 15-20 years younger than me, and what I find interesting to roleplay isn’t quite syncing with what roleplay has become in MMOs.

Toy Clown

I’m ecstatic to see a column about the depth of roleplaying. I often feel the art of it is becoming lost to new generations of RPers who just don’t understand a lot of the concepts veteran RPers were raised on. Thank you.

I enjoy bringing the illusion of reality to RP, very much. An example is RPing a character getting drunk. It takes some digging into not only the character’s background to pull this off, but also into drawing on personal experience of what being drunk feels like in order to create a display of drunkenness that is part of the scene being played out.

I’ve RPed with people in the past that have to get drunk in order to roleplay drunk, as it’s the only way they can get in-character, which while each to their own, it’s not always pleasant for me to RP with someone drunk. xD

So, yeah, fist-bump for verisimilitudism!


One of the big things that screws this up for me is your character being the One Hero Who Single-handedly Saves Everyone — while everyone else is, too. I understand why developers do this, as it’s more interesting to be the Warrior of Light (FFXIV) or the Commander (GW2) than to be just another player. This is part of the larger tension between theme park and simulation/sandbox. I personally don’t think it’s worth it to have this jarring “back to reality” moment when the cutscenes end and you realize that every other player is also the One Hero Protagonist (Hiro Protagonist?). It affects the community and a shared sense of the same world, since players’ self-conceptions are at odds with each other. Although, again, I understand why developers do this, it’s a lot easier to tell a story about a single protagonist. It’s very difficult to tell stories when every player might approach the situation in a different way and all of these approaches need to gel into a single story (lore canon problem). I think the next big advance in technology that will bring single-realm MMOs back into fashion is AI-driven storytelling. Like, the server is able to generate “events” that players can participate in, that have consequences and in which some players distinguish themselves. Because it’s clearly better to have a character have a unique identity in the world (unless you just want constant ego-stroking, I guess), but that’s difficult to program. It’s easier to partition off “You’re the hero” single-player cutscenes and have that be the canon. Again if anyone can create truly believable NPC behavior where “canon” is dynamically determined by NPC AI + sum total of PC behavior, that would be a very, very interesting game. Something like Dwarf Fortress MMO…


One of the upsides to roleplaying in an MMO is that you can create a self-conception that’s not tied to the One Chosen Protagonist role the main story gives you.

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Now that MOP is branching out with new columns, maybe we’ll get to see this one more often? Pretty please?

Hikari Kenzaki

A lot of very excellent points. Actually loved this article so thank you up front.

I often say that it’s impossible to be completely draconian about separation of IC and OOC. If these characters didn’t mean something to you as a person, there would be no point. Just like there is no point watching a movie you can’t connect with on some level.

It’s okay to cry (happy or sad tears) when something happens to your character(s) and it’s even better if you can step back from the character and share a friendship with the people playing them.

Just like a movie (which I often compare RP), often time the actors, writers, directors and so on go on to become close. An actor is able to step back from the character and talk to the person behind it and it’s a good way for RPers to be as well.

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G.K. Chesterton has this great quote about believability:

Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand.

The laws of the world as we understand them govern what is believable, whether it’s 19th century etiquette or a duel between wizards.


Ah, navel-contemplation Fridays.

It’s an interesting discussion to raise. As a long (!)-time face to face rpg gm, this is a concept that constantly comes up. I ran a campaign once where the bad guy was an absolute racist. Any idea how uncomfortable that is to play in-character? He’s the bad guy, and adding that element to the normally-shallow remove at which we “comfortably” interact with villains in game settings made him a much more visceral enemy for the players, one I firmly remember to this day.

Anyway, I have to take issue with “…strike up friendships based in no small part on interactions that the two of you didn’t really have….” considering that interpersonal contact online is generally through text anyway, is Mary’s emotional investment in Sue any less authentic, really, because it’s through the proxy names of their avatars? Their actions – slaying the monster – are simulated. Their personal connection? I don’t think so.
It’s the same conversation I have about the authenticity of experiences in gaming, generally. Some people like to think playing golf with your friends (for example) is more “real” than clearing molten core. I dispute that strongly…sure, in the golf, that FIRST action is in real life, but everything else: the memories, the fun, the good times with friends….those are all just as real as the golf. And just as “valid”.

Hikari Kenzaki

He’s not really saying friendships made in a game aren’t real.

The point of the “relationships you don’t really have” is more toward your in-character interactions not being the same as your friendship with that person behind the screen.

It’s okay to be emotionally attached to your friend’s elf mage time traveler and still have a completely different relationship/friendship with the player. It can get especially murky with in-character romances, but can also become very hard to deal with when two characters are antagonistic toward each other. As Eliot said, it begins to feel like maybe it is personal. That’s where the “is this fun for everyone” part comes in.


Agreed. You can RP being an asshole as long as everyone Rping with you is having fun with you being an asshole.

Otherwise, you just being an asshole.