Tuesday, April 26, 2011


"Nothing is true. Everything is permitted."
Alleged last words of Hassan i Sabbah

Verisimilitude. The very first sentence regarding Verisimilitude at Wikipedia launches you right into Karl Popper and the ever-evolving philosophy of science. Popper was among the very first to assert that the true aim of Science was Truth. But of course that's a bit odd when you realize that the overwhelming majority of scientific theories have been exploded as false, disproven as untrue, or deprecated as spurious, outmoded, superseded or just plain something that doesn't get talked about in polite company any more. Like those skeletons that the janitorial service was kind enough to hide away in the closets for the research staff.

Verisimilitude in literature, because Literature requires its own brand of verisimilitude, is much more interested in the appearance of truth, the probability of reality, not the actual-factual stuff itself. It's scripted and coached and directed, just like most so-called 'reality shows.'

Appearances, semblances, superficial resemblances; that's all that Verisimilitude really needs to be in Literature where philosophy is lobbed about like horseshoes and implications like grenades. Aye, and All the World's a Stage, and living on a lighted stage approaches the unreal...

"My own rule is that no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care & verisimilitude of an actual hoax. The author must forget all about 'short story technique', & build up a stark, simple account, full of homely corroborative details, just as if he were actually trying to 'put across' a deception in real life - a deception clever enough to make adults believe it."
Excerpt from a letter, from H.P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith,

Dated October 17, 1930

To pull of a decent hoax, like on the scale of the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, you either have to have a lot of gullible people on-tap, or make your pitch really, really convincing. That hoax inspired Edgar Allen Poe to do his own attempt at perpetuating a hoax, The Balloon Hoax which he published in 1844 with lots of hyperbole and powerful journalistic ju-ju that sold a lot of papers and might have helped to inspire Jules Verne to write Around the World in Eighty Days. Not too shabby.

Hoaxes are intriguing combinations of marketing, copy-writing, presentation, and that indefinable 'something' that captures the public's imagination and causes people to run away with the stampeding herd towards some ill-defined and often disappointing denouement that rarely pays good interest on the initial investment, but people still keep get caught-up in these things. Like Mr. Mulder, a lot of people Want to Believe.

In fiction and in gaming, this tendency can be manipulated, much as Poe or Lovecraft, or quite a few others have done. It's a very intriguing process, manufacturing a story that might or might not be a hoax, to really, truly develop the right balance of verisimilitude that sucks the readers or players right into the midst of the action.

So much so-called 'Epic Fantasy,' and even a good deal of what passes as science fiction passes over the whole thorny matter of hoaxes as if they are impossible within a pseudo-medieval setting or that somehow as science goes onwards there are no frauds, no fudging of results, no tampering with the data--and no wild, false claims or smear campaigns to kill inconvenient findings. Right. Sure. That pretty much displays a paucity of imagination and a lack of faith in the culpability and venality of other human beings.

Hoaxes happen. Pope Joan. Certain, if not all--opinions vary wildly. Crusades. Fake Almanacs like the one Isaac Bickerstaff/Johnathan Swift foisted on the unsuspecting public. The toxically spurious Malleus Maleficarum started out as a hoax perpetuated by two low-level frauds whose efforts took off so spectacularly and got so out of hand because of the fervor, mania and panic that they stirred up that the Pope eventually felt that he had to get behind the thing. All of those and more could easily take place in a pseudo-medieval/Renaissance setting with or without Lie detecting spells, clairvoyance, or whatever. Besides, one person knowing the truth doesn't matter in the face of mass hysteria such as what the Malleus served to bring to a head. Conspiracies grow up around those who know things that they don't want anyone else necessarily knowing for certain, and one really fun way to handle the whole divine magic stuff is to make everything that derives from a specific deity or religion have a specific slant according to the doctrines and precepts of those beings or institutions. When you rely upon the veracity of gods, you rely upon the fallible, celestially/infernally/tellurically muddled politics and machinations of beings far beyond your mortal ken. They need not lie to manipulate or mislead. Though, it might not go over so well to try the Obi Wan 'certain point of view' gambit. That can get harsh. And it's a lame cop-out, even for Lucas.


Then there's Piltdown Man, The Cardiff Giant, The Unparalleled Adventure of Hans Pfaal, The Minnesota Ice Man, Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds Radio Drama, and many, many more--just take a look at The Museum of Hoaxes, Hoaxbusters, or Snopes and you can see how the wild and wooly world of hoaxery has caught up with the Internet Age. P. T. Barnum was hardly the last great hoaxer and we've come a great way from the Fiji Mermaid thanks to things like Photoshop and the Internet. Just take a look at Bat Boy sometime. If those metro-sexual cavemen can get a failed TV show, why not Bat Boy?

The rise of science has been paralleled by the persistence of pseudoscience. As we find ourselves transported into realms of super science beyond the garish imaginings of the Great Depression's pulps and the Atomically-charged scifi movies of the Fifties, we find ourselves confronted by wondrous things that offer to make our dreams come true...but what dreams will come true, which ones will be denied, and what things will lurk around the periphery like drooling degenerates, nameless horrors or lost kingdoms of subtle magic and grace? What legends will collapse into manifest reality, and which ones will remain coulda-beens, shoulda-beens, mighta-beens? And which things will endure as quizzical, mysterious outliers and reflections within the foam of possibilities just beyond our reach?

Equipped with the best consumer electronics and a modest gift certificate to Home Depot, what sort of mischief could a film school drop-out get themselves up to, if they had access to an isolated population out on some island? Now give them the means to do this sort of thing out on some non-descript, unregistered planet.

You know it's going to happen. It won't just be false prophets and con-men leading pilgrims on to wilderness settlements in Guyana or visionaries building retro-esque Utopian metropolises or New Age Communities in Brazil. Fake treasure maps, forged diaries, faked relics...to say that those sorts of things just won't happen any more in the future is foolish, short-sighted and pretty much doomed to failure. Fakery, fraud and hoaxing will continue. It's something in our very make-up as humans. We crave outre beliefs, strange new vistas, we want to believe in weird things.

"In this book it is spoken of...Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether they exist or not. By doing certain things certain results follow."
Aleister Crowley

But do we need outright hoaxes? What about things such as the infamous Voynich Manuscript? No one has definitively decrypted this thing. You can take your own best shot at it by going to the Voynich site and trying your luck. We still don't have definitive proof for a statistically significant number of UFO sitings, and there's always the Loch Ness Monster that gets 'solved' every decade with a different answer that seems reasonable for about a year or so, then flares back up as an unsolved mystery.

And that may well be the key to all this verisimilitude--you might try to proceed with all the care and attention to detail in preparing your fictive materials with the verisimilitude of an actual hoax, taking Lovecraft at his word, but you also have to balance this ultra-rational approach to the irrational with some means of preserving the mystery, otherwise it all just goes stale and boring and gets overly contrived, complicated and ultimately devolves into a waste of time. Splash the details over things like an expensive cologne, not a bucket of that dreadful bodywash crap that fills school hallways with a pungent miasma that'd choke a maggot.

When you have the depth of detail to draw upon, don't be in a hurry to vomit it forth all at once. Dole it out, and make the players dig for this stuff. Anything that they think that they found out through their own efforts is worth ten to a hundred times anything that you just hand to them. If they aren't figuring things out fast enough or going after the clues you've laid-out, consider what someone else who does see the pattern or relevance of these things would be doing, and set an NPC on the trail, someone who isn't a dullard or a push-over, and who places a value on finding out just what the heck is going on. Perhaps they are a scholar or a sage, or the agent of one. Once the players find out that information is another form of treasure that can get them gold, magic items, or other benefits through trade with certain NPCs you'll have unlocked a seriously fun new aspect of adventuring--those maps are worth even more if you sell them, or copies of them, to the local cartographer, merchant's guild, or sage. Those details that you toss out there about orc migrations, goblin plagues, mysterious lights spotted along the root-tangled topside of a particular mound--all those things become valuable and worthwhile. They can even lead into new adventures, as local rulers and others will want to know about new routes, unique trade opportunities, troop dispositions, raiding parties, weird anomalous stuff going on within or just past their borders...

Verisimilitude is a DM's best friend, when used in this manner.

Drowning your players in massive 27-page info-dumps and burying them under a mountain of trivia isn't verisimilitude, it's the death-knell of gaming. It's boring.

Make the things that the characters discover or learn about meaningful, useful, give it all some sort of context that encourages and enables them to make use of this information and once they get the hang of it, watch out.

Your game will never be the same again.

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