The Skill of Immersion

I did a lot of gaming this weekend, and combined with the increased traffic in my PBeM as a result of ‘mech combat ending allowing normal communications to resume, I found myself thinking about immersion in terms of things players do to prevent it even while being very actively and for the most part enjoyably involved in the game. There are a lot of things which GMs do to either make or break the chance for immersion, but this post is specifically about the other side of the screen today. I’ll feed myself to the ravens later. Of course, it was some examples of excellent, evocative, and immersive play that put all that is to come in perspective so let’s start there.

1. This week, a newcomer to my table cheerfully took a pre-generated character of a gender opposite to their own, and simply owned it without concern, over-acting, or self-consciousness. They walked in, sat down, and instantly began conducting themselves as that character would. Better yet, there was always a very clear distinction between what the character was saying and doing, and what the player was asking or unclear about. More often than not, the player managed to find a way to ask content and setting questions in the voice of the character in a way that fit the scene, and I have to admit I wanted to applaud. Even more incredible…? English is not their first language.

This experience brought me to two quick responses as I watched the character interactions building. The first was that either this player would have to be considered elite in some sense, or the skill in and of itself is not so grand, it is the willingness to follow through on the intent which is special. The fork in the road this presents offers me one positive result, and one not-so positive result. If the player is indeed special, then I am doomed to a life of disappointment. If instead the player was practiced at following through on the intent to immerse themselves in the role being played, then my hope that the skill is one which can be taught and nurtured is not unfounded.

2. In a different game, two other players who are strangers to each other both in real life and the game, began to sense that although seemingly being diametrically opposed on the scale of in-character morality, their characters were spending most of their time in agreement. This realization began to translate into in-character body language being presented across the table between the players as in-character communication. Their alliance is anything but solid, but it will not take too much more for the two of them to put these ideas into words, and start making waves.

This experience reinforced the one from earlier in the weekend, as I noted that these two players both begin their interaction with the game world in the first person, and clearly shift away from the seat of “I” when they want to deal with a question the player side of their player + character equation needs to know.  The division of player and character is expressed very clearly, and done without accents, costumes, or convoluted phrasing.

All of this is well and good, and I do not bring it up to invalidate play styles where immersion is not a part of play in the strictest sense, but to isolate an area of player skill which can either be developed or left to lie fallow.

To be equally clear, I did not play with any bad gamers this weekend who made these others seem to shine in comparison. In fact, everyone around the table was ready, willing and able to take on new roles and explore the worlds presented to them with enthusiasm and sincerity. I didn’t see anyone intentionally trying to mess with the game, or dictate the level of depth we could generate. What I did see though, were several different play styles in close proximity to each other in a few games run within a few hours of each others over the course of two days, and that made things stand out for me pretty clearly. I had a similar experience the first time I went to a gaming convention – the first WolfCon – but as the game options I experienced were quite limited, it didn’t stick with me in the same way as this has.

Examples of play which while reflective of the players being totally into the scene and keen on delving deeper into the story and setting, but yet which actively worked against immersion were not varied, but they appeared with great regularity.

1. Throughout the games, a few players – particularly those with a disproportionate amount of experience in “the one true game” – tended to make and announce rolls rather than describe intentions and actions. In Call of Cthulhu this would manifest as an interruption of a setting description with the announcement of “I roll Spot Hidden and get a… *dice clatter* …24,” or “My character has a Track of 25%… who has a higher Track score?” In Desolation, where a greater sense of the potentially cooperative nature of roleplaying games can manifest through the use of things like Style Points, this would manifest as something akin to “I am going to roll Sing to persuade them all to join our side,” where not only was the roll isolated and named OOC in connection with “I” but the application and result were indicated as well.

This approach definitely kept things moving forward, and resulted in a quicker acquisition of game mechanics awareness for those new to the game. It also meant that immersion was the exception rather than the norm, and in Call of Cthulhu that equates to a game which is just a pale shadow of what it could be. The game can still be fun, and intriguing, and mysterious without immersion, but it can be all of those things and more, with it.

Get on with it! 

In considering the events of the weekend the first phrase that floated to the surface of my mind was the old gem, “my character wouldn’t do that.” The second was, “think of a mix between Han Solo and Captain Kirk.” The third was, “Look on my works ye mighty, and despair.” With these three incongruous phrases floating in my apparently watery mind, I knew an entry on this observation would not be long in forming.

My character wouldn’t do that

This gets talked about a lot in a few different ways, but I raise it here in relation to immersion and the desire to seek immersive play. As both a player and a GM I have come to a point where I frankly see absolutely no point in developing a character which does not jive with the game and group that is available, and even less of a point in choosing to have that character evolve in ways which drive it out of that game or story. I am not alone in this, and nothing more needs to be said about it really. In terms of immersion, however, a few things are going on in this statement which throw barriers up to reaching any kind of immersive play.

  • My character…   Any time you stop interaction and start referring to the character as an entirely fictional construct, without even so much as a name, you take the mental process about as far away from immersion as it is possible to get.
  • You have stopped real in-game interaction to discuss in-character motivation out of character and in the third person no less
  • The argument is inherently one of A) not acting in a way which follows the momentum of the story, and B) not acting in a way which works in harmony with the rest of the group. Regardless of what sort of story is being wrought and if acceptance or non-acceptance make the most sense in terms of character, setting, and story, the only thing this argument really does is start an OOC discussion in the middle of something which must have been building toward a potentially dramatic or compelling moment, but now – thanks to “your character” cannot.
  • You are asking all of us to stop playing to focus as ourselves on a hypothetical consideration dealing exclusively with your character, the solution to which could have been explored in-character as a result of in-game events, for an immersive in-game resolution

Think of a cross between Han Solo and Kirk…

Everyone needs assistance in the show-don’t-tell department, but this approach to vocalized imagination is like being sprayed in the face with a water pistol in its efficacy as a distraction.

If a character is built on specific concepts drawn from well-known characters or people, it is certainly easy to refer people to those archetypes to help them visualize. Of course, this being a roleplaying game, you could try to actually present the traits of those characters, and have your play of the character draw comparisons from your group…  Think of how rewarding it might be to hear at a post-game chat that your character is like a cross between Han Solo and Captain Kirk, rather than not hearing it… even after you started out with that as a description. No pressure… just sayin’

On a related front, this crosses over to the GM-side of the screen in a different way. I feel that if the GM is trying to build a sense of place, and offer details in a coherent and accessible manner, that piping up to say, “Oh, it looks like Coruscant!” or “like that villain in that movie we watched that time!” is not a quick and efficient short-hand, it is a leash keeping us partially tethered to OOC territory. Worse, whatever new creative impulses the GM or players might have had on their own get pushed aside by the impact of sudden memory and the write-over effect. Rather than aiding in the collective imagination, what this does is simultaneously urge everyone to look at the wires holding up the illusion and to realize that the GM is a hack who cribs liberally from straight-to-DVD movies. If you are shooting for immersion with this you are headed in the wrong direction. Instead, making statements that reinforce what gets described, or asking questions in-character which fill in blanks and offer insight into the images being sparked in your mind, can contribute an incredible amount to the genuine creation of something drawn from all of you, not just George Lucas.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair

Similar to the point discussed in my post called Premature Imagination in which things like whiff and ping are made worse by expectations which differ from what is really going on, from the point of view of immersive roleplay, not being in touch with what sort of person your character can realistically be in the game world is a recipe for out-of-character dissatisfaction and the growing need to say things like “My character wouldn’t do that,” and “No… my character is like a mix between Han Solo and Kirk, so I think the rebel leaders would be hoping my character would lead them in whatever mission it is that they have been yammering on about…”

This is not entirely the responsibility of the player, but addressing any uncertainties with the GM and the group before play starts is certainly an area of player responsibility. The GM should clearly be trying to present clear and useful information for character generation, but in the end, only you are aware of the areas which are not detailed enough, or make no sense. Not asking questions that help you get straight on what is going on is a sure-fire way to ensure that the ignorance lives on, and will directly contribute to incongruities between how you perceive the character and their capabilities, and the way the game system is reflecting that character, and their capabilities in the context of the game.

This really begins to surface when moving back and forth between games of different or unfamiliar genres. More commonly, transitioning between games which embrace a level system and expect the character to start at Level 1, and those which do not use a level system and either do or do not also include an assumption that “starting characters” will be inexperienced can heighten the problem of not knowing one’s place in the world.  Understanding the relative social role or relative competency of your character compared to an average character in the setting is something I think should not be overlooked when building a new persona to play. If you are to represent a novice, it is good to know not only that you are playing a novice, but also what sort of challenge is too much for you to handle. If you are not playing a novice, it is good to know where you fit in the grand scheme of things, and what you might be expected to do and be responsible for as a result. Relative ability is not just a measure of how much imaginary ass you can kick, but also a measure of your duties, and the impact you have on the social fabric around you.

Immersion and the Modern Gamer

I have a feeling, that with some honest discussion and some practice, that the group which my weekend of gaming has helped to draw together may choose to explore more immersive gaming than has been the norm for the majority of the players in their previous gaming experience. I am looking forward to it, and am choosing to believe that this is a skill acquisition, not a talent or predisposition. In many ways, getting to an immersive posture in the game is more of learning a new way of expressing intent, and learning to rely on the GM as a lens rather than an arbiter.

I also feel that the benefits far outstrip the effort required, and that the practice can only add to the experience of roleplaying games, not detract. Your Kirk-clone character might not want to do it, but I certainly do.

5 Responses to “The Skill of Immersion”
  1. anarkeith says:

    Great post. It is inspiring to sit behind a GM screen and watch a player really dive into their character and the world they inhabit. I often tell my players that much of the entertainment I derive from GMing is watching the story happen through their actions and choices. These actions and choices inform what I present as obstacles and opportunities.

    Developing the skill of immersion requires the right environment. The environment includes the rules (and, more specifically in the case of most RPGs, how they are interpreted by the GM), the setting (both in-game and around the table), and encouragement from both the GM and fellow players.

  2. mxyzplk says:

    Great article man, good to see someone keeping the immersion faith.

  3. Runeslinger says:

    Thanks for the kind words, gents.

    Inspiring is a good word for the reaction to sparking truly great play, Anarkeith. I agree. Funnily enough, when I did broach the topic with the players yesterday, two of the more immersive players voted for less immersion. Following up, I found that this was more a function of thinking immersion meant Broadway or LARP or something. We’ll see what comes of things now that that has been cleared up.

    At least no one thought it meant underwater die-rolling.

  4. anarkeith says:

    Anna, a poster on my blog wrote a great comment today about three types of role players. She mentioned the drama-type as one. It’s interesting what immersion means to the different types of players. What I found useful about your post was that I felt I could cite it when talking to players about techniques for making the game, and their experience in it, better.

  5. Runeslinger says:

    I’m glad to hear that you found it useful~

    If this topic appeals to you, you might want to check out some posts by mxyzplk on his blog ‘Geek Related’ particularly On Immersion, Decrease Metagaming Increase Immersion, and Your PCs are Murderous Cretins. I enjoyed reading those immensely.

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