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.
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