Let’s discuss architecture for a moment, specifically the military architecture of dark ages and medieval Europe. This – or a close simulacrum – is the architecture of most fantasy worlds. Fantasy worlds are awash with recognizable castles with gates and ramparts. The gate is imposing and visible from afar. The armor of the men on the ramparts gleams in the morning sun. What do those men do when the ramparts get strafed by dragon fire?
Fantasy worlds tend to be awash with magic and fantastic creatures. Let’s consider a very humble fantastic creature. Our creature comes from real life but was not present on the medieval battlefield alongside the knights and longbowmen of yore. I am referring to the elephant. So what happens when the typical war elephant charges the door of the typical fantasy (a.k.a. European medieval) castle? If the elephant rammed the door and shattered it into a thousand pieces, the castle would be breached. If castles were so easily breached, they would not be very useful. So something must happen. Let’s look at it in detail using a Memotica action diagram.
The elephant has ample run-up room and is an elephant. So he starts the “full speed charge” action, accompanied by thunderous trumpeting. Once he sees the door he comes to a screeching halt, complete with skid marks. Once he has come to a stop, he starts dancing and someone puts the video on YouTube, complete with an inappropriate death metal soundtrack.
So obviously, the reason that fortress design that was appropriate for the mundane real world of 700 years ago is appropriate for fantasy worlds is because elephants dance instead of breaking down gates. A dancing elephant is any virtual world design element that breaks immersion and ejects players from the magic circle. Dancing elephants cause players to pause for a moment, realize that they are playing a game and treat the sandbox as a theme park.
Many of us have made dancing elephants. I know I have. If we have not made one, we have certainly seen one. In the real world, elephants are sometimes made to dance in circuses, where they entertain the masses. Seeing an elephant dance in a circus is a far cry from spying a wild one from the back of a jeep in the morning mist or finding elephant dung on a jungle trek. If we have ambitions of fostering high quality roleplay, then we should strive to have our elephants in the morning mist, not dancing in the circus.