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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