Asserting Plausibility


Cross-posted to my RPGtalk blog

Been doing a bit of reading. There’s a trope in fantastic fiction that has deep roots. Many, many authors take great pains to assert that the fantastic events actually occured, and the papers have been entrusted to them through a definite series of exchanges as recounted in the Foreword, Introduction, or Preface. Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe begins with such a foreword, as does Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Conan Doyle’s Holmes never writes a word, but is recorded, instead, by the compulsive diarist Watson. John Carter of Mars begins with a detailed Foreward about how Burroughs, the “editor,” received Carter’s journals. Tolkein, of course, concocted an elaborate lineage for the Red Book of Westmarch, wherein Frodo & Sam recorded their adventures. In more recent years, the Blair Witch Project became a sensation by asserting the same thing.

Why? What does this gain the author? I figure this a tool to assert the plausibility of the impossible. If these amazing, unbelievable events are real, then they’re relevant, they matter to the reader, and the reader more easily becomes engaged. I could be wrong about that. Alternative interpretations are welcome.

How does this apply to RPGs? Well, the most obvious example is Castle Falkenstein, wherein Mike Pondsmith makes great use of this technique by claiming that the entire game was written by a modern-day expatriate “spell-napped” into the world of New Europa. Which was kinda cool, I thought, but also limiting. But definitely an option for conveying setting material as if it actually existed (Pondsmith scores extra points by asserting that the rules of the game were also created within the game world itself.)

But in a game that’s more about the active creation of story than the recounting of setting details, is there a purpose to be served by connecting the fictional events of the story to the real world that the players live in?

My brain says “No.” In these novels, the authors know what is true and what is fiction. The forewords are not written for their benefit, but solely for the benefit of their readers. In RPGs, everyone is the author. Everyone knows these events did not actually happen in some faraway place because everyone is making them up right now. It would just add another hoop for the fiction to jump through, without adding much in return.

And yet, although I cannot explain why, my gut, in its frustratingly inarticulate way, says “Yes.”

2 Responses to “Asserting Plausibility”

  1. The question is, is the effect of the “asserting plausibility” device (also used by the Spiderwick Chronicles in the last couple of years) purely a matter of the possiblity that the events might have actually occured? Or does it also serves other purposes?
    Possiblity 1: Increasing the percieved reality of the fiction. (is there a crossover here with character/setting immersion?)
    Possiblity 2: An amusing exercise in and of itself; a limiting structure (what purpose does this device serve to authors aside from selling their works and making them more accessable?)
    Also, a crossover point: Baron Munchausen. This interesting story-game involves (caveat: I’ve never played it) the players roleplaying fictional characters. However, the fictional characters are entirely engaged in telling stories to one another which are purported to be true. What’s interesting here (on the topic) is that while the first level of fiction doesn’t have a direct connection to the reality level (aside from immersion in your character), it -does- have a direct connection to the next level of fiction. If these connections have an appeal in and of themselves, maybe they don’t have to have a direct connection to the most outer level.
    Given the above, the Arabian Nights has relevance, for obvious reasons.
    Also, a long-running campaign is relevant, as the early stories in the game become part of the text (and part of the connections drawn and supporting) the later text. Moreover, this may be a non-conflict thing going on in in-character conversations — if the conversation consists of talking about (or even making up) past events, well, sure, there isn’t a conflict going on -now-. But you’re referencing and even creating conflicts as you go; the movement may not be in the character-level now, but there’s still movement going on somewhere.

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