Decrease Metagaming, Increase Immersion

Immersion. Actually taking on the role of your character in an RPG; behaving, and ideally feeling, like you are a person in this shared fictional world. To me, immersion is the heart and soul of roleplaying.  If I just wanted to push my character around a board and perform cool combat combos, there are a lot of wargames and stuff out there that are arguably better at it, and a lot of computer games that are definitely better at it. I often wonder why people that don’t value playing “in character” play RPGs at all.

But since a lot of players don’t “get” immersion, it can be hard to achieve.  In fact, it seems like game designers don’t “get” immersion any more – D&D 4e makes it difficult with their dissociated mechanics, and that’s just the most mass-market version – a lot of the hot new indie games are more narrativist/gamist and are more interested in taking a God’s eye view to characters and scenes and thus create a story – but not to live a story. Often I think this is a result of people not having actually been in an immersive game, because the ones I’ve been in have been some of the best experiences of my life,and the other people in them don’t want to settle for less in the future either.

I read a great question on the Paizo boards about how to get more immersion and less metagaming in Pathfinder. It didn’t get near as much attention as I’d like, so I reposted it over onto RPG Stack Exchange, where it’s starting to get some great answers, especially from Runeslinger and LordVreeg.

Please consider joining the discussion here, or on RPG.SE, or on Paizo. I think that there needs to be a lot more discussion about things like immersion, which are the real core of the hobby, not “here’s some more feats or geomorphs or some shit like that.” It’s always harder to write about “soft skills” than hard skills, but the problem is that since the industry (and blogosphere) does that, eventually the hard rules stuff drowns out the soft techniques part.


18 responses to “Decrease Metagaming, Increase Immersion

  1. It’s pretty simple. Or so it seems to me.

    When I started RPGs, they were just starting to come down off the enormously complex rules of ‘Chivalry and Sorcery’ and get into the streamlined-with -alternate -rules-if-ya-want-them phase (although Rolemaster was a throwback, it could be played ‘lite’). I played D&D for years without miniatures, though I brought my mini case to each game and encourage their use.

    Then things began to become a little more tailored to the player. Minis and paints began to be more mainstream, more versions were available, more companies were making better sculpts, but most important of all, they were making them look *cool*. Before, a lot of players would not use my minis because they complained that the miniature did ‘not look like my character’. That might still be a complaint, but more often I see players who are now tailoring their character’s looks after a particular miniature.

    And past a certain point – in fact, a critical point – this tends to shift the personal viewpoint. The game slowly becomes not something that happens inside the player’s head, with a crude but serviceable lead avatar on the table, but something that happens on the table around all the cool scenery, to be manipulated by the player as a puppet.

    And everyone wants his puppet to have the best of the best. As an extension of your will and ego, but not your imagination, this pursuit can get pretty cruel and calculating. After a while it’s the Law of the Jungle out there, baby. You’re a winner or a loser.

    My friend Keith has been running immersive games since the mid-seventies and always used miniatures. It always seemed to me a drawback that no one could ever get a mini which *quite* matched their character, but as I grow older, I begin to see the wisdom. You don’t want the miniature to be too perfect – it has to be crude, some would argue the cruder the better, so as to serve as a place for you to hang your imagination. Details are distracting. And with miniatures painted to your taste (or even manufactured to your specs, via Shapeways) or perfectly represented on the computer monitor, there is so much detail that imagination is left totally out of the loop.

    Look, it’s like kids. Buy them a big fancy toy with lots of bells and whistles on Christmas morning, and chances are good when you come around in the afternoon, all the kids will be hard at play – with the boxes the toys came in. We laugh, but we understand. The crude box, *because* it’s crude, is more congenial to the imagination.

    So too with immersion gaming and RPGs. The stealthy takeover of the RPG by electronics, perfect renders and 24-hour play availability has in a certain sense eliminated any real imagination, or at least externalized it to the extent that many people really *do* think it is about feats and optimization and being a winner.

    That’s my nickel, anyway.

    • I don’t know how much of it can be laid specifically at the feet of “better minis,” but I do think that there is an innate distancing when you are spending most of the game looking at yourself “in the third person” as opposed to looking “through your mind’s eye”.

  2. I think part of the reason for the trend you mentioned, more designers churning out immersion-unfriendly games, is that immersion cannot be forced, only fostered. So, if you’re making a game, you can make something that ensures players will step up and tackle themes, or you can make something that allows, encourages, and inspires them to immerse — but does not ensure it. The first feels cleaner and more complete; the second is frustrating.

    It also doesn’t help that the historical marketing of RPGs doesn’t help one distinguish degrees of immersion-friendliness. “Rules lite” is about as close an explanation as we’re likely to get from most back covers.

    I’ve been told that Call of Cthulhu has some value in attracting players who like immersion. So if you want immersion, start a CoC game and that might find you some like-minded players. Unfortunately, if we view CoC as immersive, that’s just more fuel to the “mechanics don’t matter” fire, as CoC’s mechanics tend to suck.

    At the same time, many of the “mechanics do matter” people hand-wave immersion in game design, and make logical arguments about how immersion is, in fact, technically possible with any set of mechanics, so, dude, don’t limit your rules for immersion’s sake!

    So we wind up in a situation where tons of people want immersion, but few people are looking for it in new rulesets, or trust any discussion or promises about it.

    It also doesn’t help that the term “immersion” is messy, as some people use it to mean simply engagement with the game in any sense.

    So that’s my impression of where we’re at right now.

    I’m making an immersion-friendly game, and a friend has suggested that I market it as such, so hopefully in a few years we’ll see how that goes. I’m certainly open to advice on that front!

    • With CoC, I think the problem is that the usual definition of “suck” as in “these mechanics suck” are looking at them from a different values system than that of immersion.

      I’ve had lots of great success with CoC and immersion actually. Why? First, the rules are minimal and simple. Not “Over the Edge” simple, but you have a bunch of percentages, and you roll percentile vs them. Not even adding in the base case. I run my Scooby Doo Cthulhu stuff at cons all the time and you can take someone who’s never played CoC, hand them a character sheet (not a rulebook) and say “See those? Roll under” and you’re off to the races. Second, they are realistic, or at least realistic enough to make it seem alike a good spread of stuff a 1920s gumshoe or whatnot could do.

      You are right that a game can’t ensure immersion, but a lot of what it can do to encourage it is to ‘get out of the way’. A lot of the indie game tricksy mechanics that seem like they are trying to encourage RP (personality mechanics, relationship mechanics) actually often work the other way by mechanizing something that takes the attention off the fictional representation and to the game representation.

      • I agree that having a system that’s quick and easy to understand is a good thing for immersive gaming! I only hate CoC’s system as an outcome-generator, not as a processing chore. I think the outcomes tend to clash with the logic and plausibility of the fiction. That can be fixed by an on-the-ball GM saying, “Yeah, that would simply succeed here, you don’t need to roll,” but judging cases like that is a whole other skill set that CoC doesn’t teach. I’ve done my best with some cartoons here.

        I agree that “getting out of the way” has value. Immersion benefits greatly from flow, and attention-grabbing mechanics break flow. I think a big part of the question for immersive design is whether we can go beyond inspiring players and then getting out of their way. Is there any way we can get them to keep imagining the fiction and thinking in-character when they otherwise might not?

        I really think “training” is a relevant factor here too. Can play develop good immersive habits and break bad ones?

        • I do agree with you on the CoC outcomes thing. I brought that up on RPG.StackExchange but everyone insisted no, that’s not the way it should be, all my Keepers have just sucked… But I think that’s a copout and the game system definitely tends towards that as you perceptively observe.

          And sure, the more you play immersive the more you figure out how to do it. Story time… I had never played immersive before, but I had played a lot of RPGs and it seemed to me that it was what things were leading towards. This was back when I was playing D&D 2e, Fading Suns, Feng Shui, CoC, stuff like that. So we put together a campaign that was “full immersive” and tried it out. Full information compartmentalization, no table talk, attendance rules and admonishment to stay IC… And we got better at it over the 5 year campaign, definitely. It’s like anything else.

  3. I want to echo LordVreeg’s salient comment that the question was both important and long overdue. I am very glad that you asked it, although as you point out here – it will be one of those ongoing questions for which there may be no definitive answer, but I do not that that should prevent us from trying to find ways and create a framework for this sort of discussion which helps to reduce the constant wheel re-creation that goes on because essentially no one is talking about it. Like David Berg writes above: immersion is a messy word.

    I am one who feels that mechanics do matter and do have an influence on how people play, and how the game flows. I have written on my blog about how CoC’s system appropriately influences game play, and was very impressed with how LordVreeg phrased this idea in his <a href="; title="reply" on RPG:SE.

    It's a big question, although Centurion13 does get at the heart of it with where to begin: establish immersion as the foundation and do nothing which interferes with 'the life of the mind.'

  4. I wrote a long reply earlier sparked by David Berg’s interesting comments, and to say thanks for the kind mention, but it seems to have gotten nuked by internet goblins. As the chain of comments has already moved on I will not attempt to recreate it here, but will probably ramble on and on on my own blog later. A quick note would just be that I think people should go and read LordVreeg’s answer to your very important question, and try to produce actual play examples of his excellent points.

    I am one of those who feels that the system has a definite influence on immersion, particularly in the way the implementation of the system impacts on the players’ subconscious. A game like CoC can have a profound influence on the mood of a group in that it is a clearly defined pass/fail system. Compared to a more hopeful mechanic with exploding dice, this is ideal for the sort of atmosphere a Keeper is trying to foster. (I have two entries which touch on this: Seasoning Ashes to Taste, and Rolling for Fun and Profit) but the key point is simply that mechanics can either support or interfere with immersion in some very subtle ways. One reason why I am now such a fan of Ubiquity is that it does what myxzplk cites above: it gets out of the way. Mechanics like using a Jenga tower do not help me immerse…

    Centurion13’s points about increased verisimilitude negatively impacting on immersion are important, too. I personally feel that the best games are those where the only tool is the imagination.

    • Yeah, I’m with both of you on not pimping out your props too much. This is why I don’t like leaving maps out unless absolutely necessary; the experience is one of staring at paper, not “being there”.

    • …so, yeah, I’m with you on Dread. Playing Jenga adds to an atmosphere of anxiety… but simultaneously kills the sense of what it’s like to be there in a horrific situation.

      Also, neat point about exploding dice being “hopeful” and thus inappropriate for CoC! I think there’s also a gap in imagining the fiction produced by multi-step resolution. “I rolled, but I still don’t know what happened until I roll some more!” Not the end of the world, but not ideal either.

      Personally, the mechanics that really mess with me are the games where a mechanical decision comes first, and then an in-fiction rationale gets shoehorned in second. I don’t know of a game that forces you to play this way, yet many games reliably produce that anyway, just because it’s hard to “just roleplay” past a strong mechanical incentive to metagame. I’m thinking here about Burning Wheel, Dogs in the Vineyard traits, and Apocalypse World, all of which I like, but none of which were as immersion-friendly as I was led to believe by their fans.

      • Yes, a lot of the indie games take a gamist/narrativist approach where it is still very “mechanics first.” Good for party games, but not really roleplaying.

  5. Pingback: Jacques Cousteau was a roleplayer « Casting Shadows

  6. Immersion, which has been ignored or taken for granted, has been returning to the conversation in the last few years.
    Many of the comments on this post reflect this; in that the last few generations of mechanics fads (combat balance, shared-narrative, dice pools, wishlists, et al) have raised the barrier to immersing into the game without that intention. The designers had their eyes in other areas, trying to push boundaries and create different types of games, whcih I approve of.

    But, as I have also said, “That is my interpretation. That the same rules designed to reduce the role of the GM and to empower the player also destroyed the autonomy to create a consistent setting. And more importantly, these rules reduce the Roleplaying component of what is supposed to be a ‘Fantasy Roleplaying game’ to something else”
    In other words, roleplaying as a term existed before the games did; and the idea of roleplaying effectively involves ‘becoming’ that role as fully as possible. To ‘Immerse’ oneself in the role.

    Everytime I see a post or a blog or a thread focus on it, I’m glad. I wish every game and every designer success; but I think the idea of Immersion, and it’s fundamental inclusion into the idea of Roleplaying, has been on the backburner (or fallen off the back of the stove altogether) for too long.

    • Totally agreed! Immersion is what changed gaming from “something I did in high school” to a lifelong hobby for me. It’s the compelling part of the whole deal!

  7. I’m in LordVreeg’s online game, and I will say this: If immersion is what you’re going for, he’s your guy. His game system, Guildschool, has been in development for longer than I’ve been alive, and the oddities and complexities that the system is notorious for are the very same elements that really make it work. Re-rolling initiative every time you do something in combat? It makes more sense than politely taking turns in a battle. Modifying the XP differently for each individual skill? Different characters have different levels of affinity with various skills. These mechanics create such a degree of immersion that sometimes you forget that you’re roleplaying, even when you’re already in-character.

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