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By Skimble

People often talk about ‘realism’ in roleplaying as a desirable thing, but in actual fact the quality that they are seeking is verisimilitude. What is it, what is the difference between verisimilitude and realism, and why is it a good thing? Finally, how can it be achieved?

Verisimilitude is the quality of  having the appearance of being true (see the Merriam-Webster definition here). This is distinct from realism in that something can be completely divorced from reality as we know it and yet possess the quality of verisimilitude.

Dragons aren’t real, and neither are orcs, goblins nor trolls. This means that realism is a quality that can never be accurately applied to any game that features these elements. Instead it is desirable for these things to have the appearance of truth: we want players to be able to easily suspend their disbelief and engage fully in the world.

Fantasy and science fiction are not the only genres in which verisimilitude is important. In a modern day setting that features criminal investigation, gunplay, economics or politics it is desirable to portray events in a fashion that seems to be true without having to become an expert in all of these subjects.

So how can one run a game in such a way as to preserve verisimilitude? I will start with some general points on the subject and then develop these in particular reference to running fantasy games and modern-day games.

General Points

Cause and Effect – The importance of internal consistency

Albert Einstein said that a definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Our universe (at least as far as we are able to perceive) operates on the basis of predictable effects following a particular cause.

Of course “predictable” is a movable feast and might involve a degree of variation, but it is usually possible to predict at least the generalities of what will follow from a particular cause.

Picture a pinball machine. One fires the ball to the top of the machine and knows that it will fall back towards the bottom, ricocheting from a variety of different bumpers as it goes and thus taking a random path. Every time one fires the ball it will do the same thing, although the specific path it follows will vary.

What the ball will not do is stop at the top of the table and hatch into a swarm of bees.

In other words, verisimilitude is impossible without consistency. Once you have established the rules of your setting, it is important that these are applied in a consistent way. A world that changes the cause/effect dynamic becomes a surreal, sometimes nightmarish place that doesn’t feel real anymore.

(This can be a great technique to use in dream sequences and psychotic episodes though, for exactly that reason)

Even the magical can gain the illusion of truth as long as it obeys certain rules that are internally consistent with the setting and remain the same from session to session.

Use analogy

Almost everybody will know what a wet dog smells like. That gives them an immediate sensory lock on the smell of a wet gnoll. The same is true of the appearance of wet, matted fur or the sound of a hyena laughing. By using  these sensory memories in your description of a gnoll you can ground it in the players’ memories of real things and thus apply a veneer of reality. The more easily a player can imagine a fantastic thing in detail, the more true it will seem to them.

Verisimilitude in character actions

People do things for a reason. Try to ensure that any actions your characters take are grounded in their established personality. If you depart from their personality for any reason then try to show the players why they have acted differently.


Sometimes a little bit of homework is necessary. For example, in order to provide verisimilitude in a description of a castle, it is helpful if you know at least the basics about castle design, locations etc. You don’t need to take this to extremes, but even a few minutes’ study on a particular topic can be immensely helpful in providing a realistic scenario that will engage players without making them think too much about the details or logistics.

Sometimes it’s the small stuff

It may seem harsh, but sometimes it only takes a small flaw or detail you overlooked to bust the players’ sense of verisimilitude and thus decrease their immersion in the game. Whether you forgot to put a toilet in the king’s chambers or forgot to figure out how the murderer got in without disturbing the victim’s pet dog, this is going to happen occasionally. All you can do is try to rectify the situation and move on.

These are the sorts of things you only learn with experience!

Verisimilitude in a fantasy game

Establish the rules and how they differ from reality

It is helpful to make a note of the rules of your setting. What are the limitations of magic? What (in general terms) is the food web or ecosystem like? Do dragons even need to eat? Even if you don’t make a comprehensive list of rules and details like this, it’s important to make a note of them as they come up in the game. Otherwise, it will be difficult to ensure consistency.

Designing “dungeons” and other environments

If you have a corridor with spiked pit traps at both ends, how did the group of gnolls in the middle get there safely? How does the dragon in the central chamber get in and out, and what does he eat? If the long network of passages to the Dark Lord’s bedroom is filled with so many deadly traps, how does he get there himself?

In other words, try to think through the logical consistency of each environment you design to ensure that there aren’t any obviously illogical elements.

Verisimilitude in a modern “real world” game

Establish the level of knowledge among your players

If none of your players know anything about ballistics, history, physics, legal procedures, forensic science etc. then it is easy to provide a sense of verisimilitude on these subjects by applying common sense. If any of them are more knowledgeable on a subject then you will have to go to greater lengths to maintain the illusion of truth.  Either way, it’s good to know.

Absorb appropriate media

If you’re running a game that’s heavy on police procedure or forensic investigation, read fiction on those subjects or watch TV. Whilst we all know that there are inaccuracies in those sources, they too are concerned with verisimilitude. In the absence of a player who knows the real deal this is useful stuff to absorb as for most purposes it will be sufficiently verisimilar.

Utilise your own experiences

While you may not have been at a murder scene, you know what blood smells and tastes like thanks to nosebleed incidents or minor cuts etc. You can expand that and use it when describing a scene of carnage.

It’s perfectly acceptable to focus elements of the game on areas of which you have experience. This is why a lot of GMs choose to run games that are set in their home town.

In closing

Hopefully you will have found this article inspiring or at least informative. If you can think of any good techniques for enhancing verisimilitude in games I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!


  1. avatar

    Ryan says:

    It’s important not to let real life and/or details get in the way of people enjoying themselves though. I like to use the example of racing computer games, they were really fun up until a point, then the physics got so realistic in certain games that you were no longer able to do the fun stuff, like powersliding. I believe detail and devotion to rules CAN be damaging and detract from the experience, however this does not really impinge upon verisimilitude as once you have set the new rules they are easy enough to follow.

  2. avatar

    Skimble says:

    Yes, this is something that needs to be fine-tuned to fit the game and the particular players. I note that it doesn’t necessarily require a large amount of rules to be able to portray verisimilar settings, characters or events though; it’s more a matter of being consistent in one’s approach.

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