Tag Archives: roleplay

On Immersion

I firmly believe that immersion should be the primary artistic goal of a roleplaying game.  It is an eminently achievable goal which creates a rich experience that one that can rightfully claim to be more than “just a game.”  Sadly, few people even understand what immersion is, let alone try to reproduce it in their RPGs.

What Is Immersion?

Well, that’s a good question.  There’s a recent really good RPG.net column entry, “On The Nature Of Immersion,” which got me started down this train of thought, that talks about five different things one might mean by “immersion.” For purposes of this discussion, I will define immersion as the process of trying, to the degree it’s really possible of course, to holistically take on your character’s mindset, and to try to experience the game world and events through that mindset.  Metagame factors should be eliminated ruthlessly.  Back in the day (the early ’90’s) we just called this “in-character roleplay.”

Theory and History

Though I’ve seen people play “in character” since the early days of the hobby, Immersion ™ was strongly promulgated as a concept by the “Turku School” of Finnish larpers and their humorously boldly worded Manifesto, in which they delineate four types of gaming – gamist, simulationist, dramatist, and “eläytyjist”, which I will call “immersivist” from here on out because I’m on a low reindeer-meat diet. They say the point of an RPG is to immerse yourself into your character’s consciousness and interact with its surroundings, and that furthermore this is how RPGing can become art.  And this is 100% correct in my opinion.

It’s instructive to see the difference between immersion and other styles.  Some other theorists confuse immersion with “acting,” but this is actually one of the major anathematic stances to them.  The Turku School’s “Larper’s Vow of Chastity” starts with: “1. When playing a character and immersing myself in it, my foremost goal shall be to simulate what happens inside the character’s head, and how it affects his behavior. Hollow pretence I leave for the actors.”  Good stuff in general, though there’s an off undercurrent of “I lick the gamemaster’s boots!” running through it.

The Nordic LARPers later came out with an interesting clarifying paper, Autonomous Identities, which is good reading if you understand words like “diegesis” and don’t mind people quoting Aristotle.  It clarifies how in some ways simulation can be an immersion substitute – “The theory is that the immersionist experiences what the character experiences, while the simulationist only pretends to, logically deducing what the character would do next.”  Eventually  the Nordic scene stepped back from immersion a little in favor of a story/dramatist approach, as you can see in the new loosely-defined but Diana Jones award-winning Jeepform style of LARPing.

Unfortunately, all this stayed largely confined to the Nordic LARPer community, even though immersive concepts are equally (if not more) applicable to tabletop play.

In the American/British mainstream RPG theorist tradition, they pretty much ignore immersion.  The GNS/Forge “indie games” tradition recognizes only the three non-immersive types, and in general the Ron Edwards-driven FORGE group of indie RPG makers have moved from their historically more dramatist/narrativist approach to strongly favor a strange gamist/dramatist mix (We’re telling a story, but with more and more tokens and cards and miniatures and crap!)  that even the more mainstream games like D&D 4e and WFRP 3e have started to adopt in part.  Most of the indie RPG community’s theory work has become ghettoized into being dependent on Edwards and therefore has been pretty much sitting unchanged for a while.  The “Big Model,” his newest approach, might theoretically allow for immersion as part of “character exploration” but its very weakly represented, if at all, in his description of creative agendas.

Outside the FORGE, the earliest RPG “theory” book I know of, Gary Gygax’s “Role Playing Mastery,” (yes, I have a copy, I’m a freak) is unabashedly about tactical (gamist) mastery, even though it does begin by noting that role-playing is half born of the historical minis wargamers and half of “clinical and academic role assumption and role-playing exercises “.

Robin Laws’ “Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering” mentions a variety of player types including the “method actor.”  Its definition is reasonably immersivist – “The method actor bases his decisions on his understanding of his character’s psychology” – but in name and in some of the turns of phrase threatens to confuse immersive with the dramatist’s surface “actor” stance which is in reality totally opposed to real immersion.  But if one has an accurate understanding of what pure method acting is supposed to be, it’s a good term.  Immersion and method acting can use some of the same techniques, like affective memory and substitution, but immersion is arguably purer because there is no external audience to please which requires classical acting techniques to be admixed.  Many “method actors” really mix traditional acting with the more immersive method acting techniques, so for RP theory purposes I don’t like using “actor” anywhere near “immersion” because it causes confusion.

Greg Stolze’s “How To Play Roleplaying Games” at least promulgates “setting logic” (aka simulationism) and notes that role-playing “can go deeper and have a more profound impact” by confronting characters with challenging issues.  But then it goes more to the basics like “show up to the game, pay attention, and don’t be a disruptive prick.”  Sadly, and I’m not saying it’s not needed, most “how to” RPG documents tend to turn into a list of stuff you should have learned in elementary school.  I’m not criticizing Stolze on this point; my interaction with the larger RPG community through the RPGA indicates that a lot of people need that.

Anyway, clearly game theory outside the ice-bearing countries doesn’t get into immersion much, but then again it’s largely either mired in basics or enslaved to Ron Edwards.

Why Immersion Via Tabletop And Not LARP?

Some of the folks reading this may be Nordic LARPer types.  I had a discussion with a couple after the inciting RPG.net column, and they tend to feel that immersion is easier in or more relevant to LARPing than tabletop.  I actually disagree pretty strongly with that.  Let me start with a pretty brutally worded analogy.

Q: Which is more immersive, a book or a movie?

A: A movie if you’re stupid, or a book if you’re smart.

After saying “Oh, snap,” think about that for a minute and we’ll proceed.

I would say that LARPing can probably be more immersive that tabletop when:

a) It is very well done, with realistic scenery and props

b) The characters are very close to the players in physical makeup

But that’s a big “if.”  It creates a lot more jarring things that block immersion in many other cases.  Some guy carrying an orange “please don’t shoot me, cops” gun is frankly less convincing than just being at a table imagining a guy with a gun.  And if all my characters are out of shape thirtysomethings that’s great, but wandering around the Dragon*Con hotel or campsite needing to take a dump doesn’t make me feel more like a robotic killing machine from Mars.

Even if one could get to the ideal “holodeck” type solution to address a), you would still have trouble until you got “Avatar” type solutions for b)…  At the current tech level and the current level of sophistication of LARPs I personally have seen around, I strongly prefer a completely imagination-based field to promote immersion.

It’s the same reason I find books to be more immersive in many cases than movies.  Haven’t we all been disappointed with a movie adaptation of a book because “that’s not how I imagined that would look?”  Or where one really crappy CGI shot breaks you right out of the suspension of disbelief?

Furthermore, In a LARP with props, there is the promulgation of one “objective” truth of how things behave.  But there is little value to that and more value to each player’s separate subjective diegesis.  And the more you force the subjective diegeses to collide, the more likely you are to shake someone out of their immersion.  It reminds me of the GM advice in Robin Laws’ excellent game Feng Shui, to not use tactical maps.  “Revealing your map locks you into a precise conception of the area…”

Anyway, I’m not saying you can’t LARP immersively, but I am saying that there is little reason to believe immersion as a concept is inherently LARP-focused (except for the historical accident that the only folks that seem to be really into immersion are also Scandinavians who are really into LARP) and that there are good reasons to even prefer tabletop for immersion in many circumstances.

The Immersive Tabletop Game

All this isn’t just theory.  I’ve run and played in immersive games, and those groups have found them to be immensely rewarding.  I had one game that had the explicit goal of character immersion run for five years in the mid-1990s.  I’ll ping my players from that game for insights from their point of view, but for me at least it really hit the heart of what it is I wanted out of role-playing.  For many years I’d had fitful stabs at it with “normal”
casual RP games but I knew it could be so much more than that.

And it’s not really all that hard.  Though there are helpful techniques, 80% of the work is just getting a group of people to sit down and say “Yes.  In this game I am going to try to get into my character’s brain and look at the world through their eyes.”  Mainly you just need everyone to agree with that goal and for the GM to be trying to facilitate it (like any style, when different players are heading for different agendas, you end up with the least common denominator).  The players have to be emotionally unstunted enough to emote a little bit and the GM needs to keep his “in world” viewpoint going strong so that he can allow the PCs to get along with0ut making metagame decisions.  With a little practice, that’s really not very hard.  You can start out as simulationist and let things develop from there, and sim is a good fallback point that doesn’t “ruin things for everyone else” at times you can’t immerse well.

Give it a try!  I don’t have a lot of sympathy with people that have the “one way” they like to roleplay.  Maybe it’s a well kept secret, but you can play one game sim, the next gamist, the next focus on story, and the next try immersion.  Broaden your horizons.  I don’t like certain games or styles, but I play them when my gaming group wants to.

Future Topics

If anyone’s interested, I can go into:

  • How to run an immersive tabletop game
  • How to play in an immersive tabletop game
  • Simulation as a gateway to immersion
  • Isn’t immersion bad?  Aka Bleed, or “Isn’t that how that Egbert guy went nuts?  And that Elfstar bitch?”
  • But immersion makes me “uncomfortable,” aka George McFly syndrome

Hot Girl On Girl Action In Our D&D Campaign?

In our last Curse of the Crimson Throne episode, my character Annata had a surprise sexual proposition from her friend Laori.  I was faced with the decision of whether or not to give in to the frenzied cries of “We want slashfic!” from my fellow party members.  I made my decision, but as I reflected on the thought process I went through to arrive at it, I started to consider the nature of that process.

For some reason, there is very little talk out there about how people actually conduct character immersion in role-playing games.  I suspect it’s the minority that do it at all; many people deliberately reject it and even those who talk about in-character play seem to equate it to things like “using funny voices” or other trivia that reveal that they don’t really understand what immersion, in my opinion, really is.  I wanted to share the method behind how I run “in character” and hopefully get some insights from others out there who do the same.

Here’s some background on the situation in the game to provide a shared context.  My character, Annata, is a priestess of Sarenrae, sun goddess of redemption.  She grew up on the streets as part of a Fagin-style child crime group.  She escaped to the church and grew up there.  She was in the big city of Korvosa and worked as a physician, so she wasn’t cloistered and isn’t ignorant of the world, but her semi-isolation in living arrangements  and total devotion to her duties kept her from “dating” per se.  And long story short, now she’s an adventurer.

Our group met an odd woman, a “Forsaken” elf (Annata’s not 100% sure what that means) named Laori, and have adventured with her on and off.  She’s a cleric of Zon-Kuthon (think the Cenobites from Hellraiser).  Normally that would be “bad,” but her and her organization’s goals align with our heroes’.  And more than that, she’s likable.  She’s a happy, peppy, and perky (if evil) S&M Gothchick.  Sarenrae’s faith is very ecumenical, and her personality is a lot like Annata’s, so they took to each other quickly and became friends.  All the guys think (from a distance) that she’s hot; here’s the somewhat anime-looking artist’s conception of Laori in her spiked chainmail catsuit:


Anyway, last session Annata and Laori were chattering away and kinda out of nowhere, she lets me know that she wouldn’t mind getting more intimate with me.  Annata does like Laori; she’s a peppy chirpy cleric too and she definitely saw her as (platonic) girl-friend material, but this was a surprise twist she didn’t see coming.

Interesting! So here’s a peek into how my thought process went. I admit it’s a mix of true immersion and metagame thinking about my character’s personality, but I find that necessary because you seldom have enough information about the fictional world to avoid the “meta” totally.

First, my immediate reaction was intuitive, a quick reaction based on my conceptualization of Annata’s personality. Is it completely out of the question?  No.  Is it a slam dunk? No.  I could see it going either way.

I made a quick roll.   I like to use dice in these kinds of situations. Some people object to this and think any kind of personality mechanic, even an informal appeal to  fate like this one, is “roll-playing” and not immersion.  But in my opinion, the only way to truly simulate real feelings in game is to add some randomization. In the real world, attraction and the like don’t follow any automatic rules. You don’t control who YOU are attracted to.  You may have a “type” but the factors that go into it are too many to be deterministic.  If she had been propositioned by some random person she didn’t know or didn’t like, then I wouldn’t make a roll. If it was some guy she was totally into, then probably I wouldn’t roll either – unless in my opinion the situation was off enough that she might react poorly. In this case, I did what I usually do – a d20 roll, higher means more positive, with vague modifiers applied mentally. Think of it as the other person making a Charisma check. She’s made a handful of checks like this over the course of the campaign, when she’s met someone and I want to know “is chemistry kicking in.” So I made the roll. My gut was “if this isn’t real high, there’s no way.”  I don’t set hard thresholds and results (too much work!  The whole intuition plus roll happens in 5 seconds total), but in this case my gut said 1-5: Disgust, rejection, breaking off friendship; 6-10: Rejection, no explicit breaking off of the friendship but she won’t trust her afterwards; 11-15: Rejection but with friendship not severely affected; 16-20 Maybe, intrigued – not “Yes,” but “She’d think about it.”

Roll result – 18. That’s pretty high. Certainly not high enough for a good girl who has always thought of herself as straight to drop trou on the spot, but enough that after politely extricating herself, she found the idea unexpectedly intriguing and churned over it in her mind afterward in traditional woman-hashing-over-a-relationship fashion.

Here’s the mental path I went through.  Annata has been pretty staunchly straight so far; she was interested in two guys back in Korvosa (Grau, who was a bit of a project for her, and Vencarlo, a sophisticated older gentleman who ended up being the local equivalent of Zorro). Now, she is in love with Vencarlo, or thinks she is (it’s her first time in love). But he hasn’t reciprocated much, and since they both blew town she’s not sure if they’ll ever meet again. And she feels emotionally vulnerable, being away from Korvosa and all.  She’s heard of such things (woman on woman) but never thought about it herself.  What would Sarenrae do?

Meta-thinking comes in here.  I’m not sure if Sarenrae is for or against that kind of thing. One of the problems with fantasy religions is that there’s usually a lot undefined in terms of expected behavior of parishioners.   Is premarital sex OK at all?  Is homosexuality?  This is hard because these should be game “facts” and not subjective, which means I have to engage in metagame thinking. I decide that Sarenrae’s faith is probably not strictly against either, though general societal conservatism that would look down on both would be present.

Back to fully in-character.  Annata has often meditated upon the beauty of the goddess as part of her religion, though (it was the beauty of a statue of the Dawnflower that drew her when she was a street urchin).  Annata has gone through several emotional states in the campaign; when the group left Korvosa for the wilderness she transitioned from her current gig as somewhat strident wound-tight freedom fighter into a bit of a depressed martyr complex, but recently their time with the Shoanti barbarians ended up being kinda “Spring Break”-ey and she got to relax and party and open her mind, so she is in an experimental and confident kind of mood generally.  Laori is clearly a little S&Mey, which isn’t something Annata conceives herself as into, but she is pretty submissive and I can see the dynamics of a top/bottom relationship working there.  And finally, Annata is worried she might be embarrassed if the other guys found out – it might diminish her stature as a spirital leader in the party, generate jealousy, or just get her razzed more.  In the end, a lot of mixed feelings that don’t call for clear action one way or the other.

She thought over it long enough that the sheer weight of the analysis took some of the edge off – she’s not going to act on it (and probably won’t mention it happened). But she took it well enough that it won’t affect her friendship with Laori, and that means she might try again, and if it does it’s got a chance of going farther. I’m pretty comfortable that this is a realistic reaction – I’ve known a couple people over time who have been tempted (sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully) by a daring and insistent gay friend.

I haven’t gone into my method for how I play female characters; that’s a big topic and only peripherally relevant.  (Nor do I feel like I need to justify it; the people who are “against” crossgender play are wrestling with deep-seated emotional problems IMO.)  But suffice it to say the thinking through the various pros and cons I go through above is my attempt at a female approach to analyzing relationship issues, as opposed to the more… elemental typical male response.  (In this case, I am guessing the other two male PCs’ reaction would be “Hell yeah!” tempered only by explicit or implict fear that Laori would be the “top”.)  I wish I could do it more completely “in character,” but I find myself having to pepper the thought process with little meta-thoughts a lot.

I’m interested in how other people work through in-character issues. (I know some of you don’t, and think this is all weird, and say D&D is just for combat-n-fun… Feel free to not respond then.)  Do you use pure immersion (“I am Annata, and I think this…”), metagame evaluation of your character’s personality (“Annata has this in her background so she’d probably react this way…”) , randomization (“I roll d20 and… Annata likes it!”), something else I haven’t thought of, or a mix of these? And if a mix, in what proportions?

Probably one missing element is metagame group dynamics. “Would the other people at the table feel weird about this?” I almost totally omit that. Either I’m a role-playing purist, or I’m just a narcissist that doesn’t give a good goddamn what other people think, but there it is. Another is the narrativist approach, determining if this would make for a good story or not and deciding on those grounds. I do keep that in the back of my mind a little I guess… If I think it would generate a shit story I’d steer away from it out of fear of “ruining the game for everyone”.   I also try to remove “What I the player think about this” as much as possible.  Do I the player think Annata-on-Laori action would be hot; do I believe homosexuality is right, etc – I deliberately firewall that away (as much as is possible) in favor of my character’s personality and beliefs.  Or worse, what someone else thinks – I have little tolerance for people who interject with “Well, a good character/cleric/woman/etc. would…”  I politely encourage folks like that to close their filthy gobs.  And lastly, “acting.”  Immersion is akin to method acting, but in my mind the more commonly defined RPG actor stance – “using voices” and dramatic turns and flourishes – have jack crap to do with real in character play.

Thus after thinking about it, I’d have to say my pet “in character” thought process mix is:

  • As much immersion as I can (50%)
  • Metagame evaluation to fill in the gaps where I can’t fully immerse (35%)
  • Randomness where I think that human feelings should not be deterministic (10%)
  • A shade of “will this derail the story” in the back of my mind (5%)

I’m really interested in hearing other people’s method for “deep IC” play!

Is D&D 4e Really Role-playing?

There’s a lot of discussion about this all over the place. I hesitate to answer, but I would like to shed some light on some of the terminology in use and mention some bits where I think people may be being unclear.

According to the old Threefold Model, which is a seminal attempt at theoretically classifying approaches to roleplaying, there are three (natch): Gamism, Simulationism (or Immersion), and Dramatism (or Narrativism).  Usually people don’t come purely from one approach or the other but some mix of them, although you usually see consistent leanings into one of the three approaches.  Would you like to know more?

“Gamist” usually means a focus on playing the game for the rules, with clear challenges and victory conditions and metagame goals. Often in games this means combat, but skill and interaction events are also gamist if pursued with a “rules first” mentality. Some people like the gamist approach. Gamism is what people are complaining about when they say “D&D 4e plays like Magic/RoboRally/a board game/a tactical minis game/etc.” Gamists like to “do what will win.” People don’t use the old terms “munchkin” or “powergamer” much any more, but they were deprecating ways of referring to gamists, since they worried about their character’s build or loot more than a realistic in-game motivation.

“Simulationist” usually means a focus on “becoming” the character inside a realistic game world. RPGers like to use the big word “versimilitude,” which means “Yes I know magic isn’t ‘realistic,’ but the game world can still behave realistically according to its own rules from its inhabitants’ point of view.” Simulationists like to “do what their character would do.” Metagaming, or making decisions about what the character does using information not obvious to the character, is heavily frowned upon. D&D was extremely simulationist (with a side plate of gamist) up through 3e; a lot of the reaction to 4e is its movement in the other directions.

Continue reading

Breaking the Flow

Over on Game Playwright, Jeff Tidball has a good post on the ‘flow’ of a game and how it gets disrupted, in as annoying a fashion as disruptions in a movie, by people doing other stuff and the omnipresent jokesters.

I have found this to be very true. In one long-term heavy RP campaign I ran, the group agreed to several rules that were specifically designed to address this.

Continue reading