How Much Suspension of Disbelief Is Too Much?

During my recent playtest for Playthings at Who’s Yer Con I ran into an issue that has crept in the back of my mind for a long time. I had a kid playing the game who was maybe six years old. He wanted his character to be his plush Toothless the dragon, which was cool. I love giving players the chance to play as their favorite toy. The problem was that the kid was insistent that in the game Toothless could fly and he got very upset when I tried to explain that Toothless was just a toy and couldn’t fly.

My wife and I have a running joke when we watch movies or TV shows. Take, for example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy and the Scoobies are fighting some big bad and Buffy gets thrown across the room and slams into a wall. One of us might say, “Oh please, if someone hit a wall that hard they would be dead,” upon which the other will inevitably say, “So… You’re okay with vampires, werewolves, and demons being real, but Buffy bouncing back from being thrown into the wall is too much for you?”

Going back to the kid, this is where I find myself now. (“So… I’m okay with Toothless being an awakened Toy that moves around on his own, but Toothless flying is too much?”) I ended up compromising and allowed Toothless to be able to glide, but not actually fly, but it still bugged me.

And this isn’t the first time I’ve struggled with this problem during a playtest. A couple years ago when I ran Playthings at Gen Con one of my players tried to use one of their accessories, a plastic hair dryer, as a real hair dryer. When I said that it was just plastic and wouldn’t work they were flummoxed. (“So… Fitness Instructor Stacy being alive is all right, but her hair dryer functioning is too much?”)

I take some solace in the fact that I’m not the only one who has waffled on this issue. In Toy Story there are times when objects that shouldn’t have functioned, did. Early in the movie the green plastic army sergeant uses his “binoculars” to look at the birthday gifts in the distance. Same thing happens later when Woody uses Lenny the wind-up binoculars to see the Combat Carl that Sid is about to blow up. Those events have always bothered me, but the question is why?

I think the answer is that it’s a matter of being internally consistent with the world that you present. A key point in Toy Story is that Buzz is just a toy, so he can’t fly. So Lenny working as real binoculars sticks out because he’s just a toy too. So why can he function as real binoculars when he’s a toy, but Buzz’s jetpack can’t function because he’s a toy. It’s inconsistent.

I know this all seems nit-picky, but if you create boundaries then you need to abide by them, otherwise the players suspension of disbelief may be disrupted. Playthings is not supposed to be a high magic setting. The only “magic” is that the toys awaken. Period. Outside of that, they are still just toys. They can’t fly, their hair dryers don’t actually function, and Lenny the damned binoculars can’t magnify squat! Sorry kid, but Toothless the dragon will have to take a cab.

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Posted in Game Design, Playtesting

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