How can players make a world seem real?
First things first ~ I realize that not everyone may want the game world to seem real. By the way, notice that the question didn’t say realistic, but real. Total disclaimer up front, my bias and preference will probably color this post, because I prefer a certain sort of experience, and this prompt points in that direction. So be warned.
I like to have an experience “as the character” ~ where they seem like a real person, and by extension, where everything else in the world, the other PCs, the NPCs, consequences good or ill, the locations, the scenarios ~ all that seems real as well. As the prompt suggests, wanting a game world that feels authentic isn’t just about having a believable world spoon fed to you by a game author and/or game master, it takes some effort on your part as well.
I’ll give the short answer first and you can skip reading the rest if you’d like, (although I have to say, you would be missing out). The Hubris! ~ Here goes: If you want a world that feels real, act as if it’s real!
Glad you kept going. Good for you. So, how do you act as if it’s real? For starters, act as if your character is real and not just a pawn or token on a board. This doesn’t require that you have an experience as the character, or act in character. You can do this in an out of character “third person” way as well. However you do it, start thinking of your character as an actual living breathing person. What do they want? How do they feel about that NPC? If this situation goes badly, how will the consequences affect them? Are they willing to risk that? What kind of bonds do they have with the other PCs? What about the NPCs in the world? Why are they accepting this mission? Are they having second thoughts? What makes them tick? What would send them over the edge?
That real character doesn’t exist in a vacuum. They push on the world and the world pushes back. After taking time to look inward at the character, the next thing to do is to look up and see what and who is around you. Take interest in the other player characters and get to know who they are. Start to see opportunities for the relationships with them to develop. These bonds don’t have to be all peaches & cream, but the more we start to pay attention to them, the more they gain traction. Start looking at them as real people, and they will seem real.
But don’t just limit that interest and effort to the Player Characters. As so many answers to the prompts in Days #4 and #5 revealed this weekend, the NPCs in the world come alive when the players take an active interest in them. I could be wrong, but GM portrayal of the NPC seems secondary. So does how important the GM thinks that the NPC is. What matters is if the players (and their characters) view them as compelling and important. Do the same thing for the NPCs as you do for the other PCs. What makes them tick? What do they want? Can I trust them? What kind of bonds exist between us? What kind of bonds are emerging over time? ~ Treat NPCs as if they were real and they become real.
Keep expanding this perspective to the organizations and factions in the world. Keep your eyes & ears open. Figure out how you (your character) connects to all of these groups. Organizations have motives and drives just like people, they’re just infinitely more convoluted.
Follow your character’s interests around. Don’t get hung up on what you’re supposed to be doing or “the story”. (My preference & Bias is showing, so take this with a grain of salt). This isn’t an excuse to indulge in “my guy” syndrome, but it does mean that your character and the world are going to seem to be much more real once you start acting like your character would in that situation as if it really mattered. ~ Sure, we’re being adult about this so we’ve had a Session Zero, heard the pitch, decided upon genre and what this game is going to be about ~ right? So maybe we’ve agreed that our characters are going to take the job offer from the clandestine government organization. Maybe we’ve agreed that this is just the starting scenario, or maybe we’ve decided that we’re going to see it through no matter what. (Musketeers to the end). There are always going to be some boundaries defined by genre and the social contract, but within those, get inside the character’s head and figure out what they would actually do. Then do it! Nothing makes a game world seem more artificial than when you’re constantly making decisions based upon what you’re supposed to be doing.
Speaking of doing things, follow the (paraphrased) admonition of Vincent Baker ~ to do the thing, do the thing! Systems and mechanics are important, and very often they inform and support the genre and feel of a game. But just recently I was reminded to do what my character would do in the situation rather than to constantly filter my actions through the gritty and “realistic” mechanics of the Mythras Mythos game I’m in. There’s a difference between being informed by how the mechanics operate, and being crippled by them. Your character and the world feel a lot more authentic when you narrate your intention and what you’re doing, & you let the mechanics take care of themselves.
Which brings us to narration. Sure, you have to engage in a certain amount of “game-speak” for clarity. After that, the more you narrate what your character is doing, how they interact with the environment, what they say, & how they react to the NPCs, the more real the world is going to seem. This doesn’t mean go overboard. Often “less is more”. A few key details are often sufficient. Narrating around mechanics, (physical, social, whatever) can make them seem a lot less intrusive and artificial. This takes practice, and I’m still working on it.
On the topic of narration, often the game of “20 questions” can start to break the flow and the illusion of reality is disrupted. Many times it keeps things moving if players narrate the existence of objects that would be in an area consistent with genre and location. “I pull the curtains off the window” or “I look around for the first fist sized rock I can throw”. The worst thing that can happen is occasionally the GM has to veto something as being a “Grimaud’s Crowbar” or that in this case there isn’t one.
Last, but certainly not least, perhaps most important of all ~ Make choices as if there were consequences. Make these choices from the perspective of the character, not from the perspective of a player moving around an easily replaced token. Sure, the consequences will be very different in a pulp heroic game like HEX than they are in a grittier more “realistic” game like Mythras, but they are just as real. Just because the genre & system might produce kinder & gentler consequences doesn’t mean that the characters will welcome them with open arms. Just because John McClane is almost impossible to kill doesn’t mean that the thought of losing his wife doesn’t tear him apart. Keep what your character wants (and doens’t want) in mind. The best games will have us making difficult choices.
When we make the decision to buy into the authenticity of the world, when we act as if our characters and the other people were real, and when we make choices as if they and the outcomes were meaningful, the world becomes just as real as this one. The power is in your hands.
As Einstein said “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”.