So here’s something I’m sick of hearing. “How do you justify the existence of [puzzle element] in your world?”. I get why it’s being asked, and I do think immersion is important, but I think there is often this perception that realism is synonymous with immersion. I frankly do not believe this is true, and today I want to talk about that.
Realism can plainly be interpreted as how closely things in our DnD games match their real-world analogues. It is a very important factor in making a game world that is sensical, navigable and interpretable. Things like ‘how fast can you travel on horseback?’ and ‘How much weight can a rope hold?’ are where we should be focusing on realism. If our fantasy horses are significantly faster or slower than what someone might expect based on their real-world counterparts then the game world becomes harder to predict, interpret and navigate. This adds unnecessary challenge to playing DnD.
But for the most part realism is well obeyed in these sorts of areas. When we look at introducing our own systems that are analogous to real-world activities (like building homebrew systems for overland navigation) then we need to do so with respect to realism, but I dare say we need not heed realism beyond that when making things for our games.
Immersion is, in its simplest form, how engaged and engrossed your players are with your game. It doesn’t necessarily mean they find it more realistic, just that they find it easy to lose themselves in the game.
Oftentimes increased realism creates increased immersion, but this is not a one-to-one relationship, and just because realism can increase immersion does not mean that it always will and also does not mean that it is the only way to increase immersion.
Suspension of Disbelief
This is a term I imagine most people are already familiar with, but for those who are not the suspension of disbelief refers to a person’s ability to pretend that things which aren’t real are in fact real (or that the normally unbelievable is believable). When we read books and watch movies we are often suspending our disbelief so that we can immerse ourselves in the story. Even when cerebrally we know that what we are seeing is not possible, we pretend for a moment that it is so that we can watch immersively rather than incredulously. We do this for the purpose of our own entertainment.
There is a limit to suspension of disbelief, but it’s a hard limit to quantify. In a relatively realistic movie we may struggle to suspend our disbelief that someone is suddenly able to use magic when magic has not been a factor up until that point (imagine someone using a real working love potion halfway through an otherwise conventional romcom). However in a movie about magicians using real magic that love potion would be perfectly believable and the limit of what we are able to accommodate in our suspension of disbelief is far greater. It’s all about context.
Recontextualising Immersion in DnD
When people ask me “How do you make [x] feel realistic in your world?” what they are really saying is ‘This goes beyond what I think a player’s suspension of disbelief could accommodate.’. I think, though, that this often doesn’t give players enough credit.
When we sit down to play DnD we want to enjoy certain things the game allows us to do. Among them are things like casting spells, fighting demons, negotiating with kings, travelling into hell, and so on. The range of things is immense. This means our suspension of disbelief can extend very, very far in the name of enjoying these things. No player has ever gone ‘The Lich opened a portal to the moon? That’s unrealistic.’ because, frankly, it is plausible within the context of DnD. Even if it’s unprecedented and they haven’t seen it done before they will be willing to believe it for the sake of enjoying the game. Sitting there and calling bullshit is a great way to kill your own fun, and most players don’t want to do that.
Having traps and puzzles within dungeons is also part of what we play DnD for. We need to have loose justification for them (‘Someone put the puzzle here to test the worthy’) but the player’s willing suspension of disbelief will meet us halfway. Even if the justification is flimsy, no player is going to sit there and go ‘it’s bullshit that this puzzle would exist in the world’ because all they would be doing is sabotaging their own ability to enjoy solving the puzzle.
How Do You Justify The Existence Of [Puzzle Element] In Your World?
For the most part I don’t. Or at least not in the super-comprehensive, maximally-realistic way that many DMs seem to think it needs to be. Why is there a riddle on this door? Because someone wanted it locked. Why are the missing parts to this mechanism conveniently scattered around this dungeon? Because they are. Maybe a stray animal wondered in and broke the mechanism.
“How do you justify the existence of [puzzle element] in your world?”
“Does it matter?”
Did the players enjoy the puzzle? Was it a good session? Did people have fun? Those are the things I care about first. Caring about realism comes after that, because realism isn’t necessarily immersive but fun always is.
But Then Also Be Realistic
Ok so this is all well and good, and I really do stand by what I’ve said above, but let’s be honest a game that can have all these great puzzles and setpieces and still maintain a strong sense of logic and realism is going to outshine one that doesn’t. It definitely will make for a more immersive game, at least in some capacity.
But let’s make something clear. Avoiding these great puzzles and setpieces for the sake of realism is not going to make your game better. If you’re valuing the immersion that comes from realism over the immersion that comes from fun and enjoying the fullest that the game has to offer then you’re going to have a less satisfying campaign. That doesn’t mean to say a campaign requires puzzles to be good, but intentionally omitting them in the name of realism with the idea that it will make your game better is foolish.
So when people ask me how I make things like puzzle mechanics realistic, I honestly could explain it to them, but does it really matter? Is it not more important that your players enjoy it? If you do want it to be justified then figure out how best to do that for your campaign, because the way I did it for mine is tailored to my table.
I work really hard behind the scenes to have strong, realistic justifications for the dungeons I build to exist in my world. That includes their combats, puzzles, riddles, traps and more. It keeps my campaign world cohesive, and that really does add a layer to the game that my players enjoy. But during that session when they’re going through that dungeon very little of that justification actually matters. What actually matters is how much they’re enjoying the dungeon’s challenges. It’s important to remember that sometimes.