Posts Tagged ‘immersion’

In my last post, I discussed the idea that in most roleplaying games, players’ time is split. Some of it is spent performing as a character, acting exactly as that character would in the fictional world, but some of it is spent on other activities. Exactly what those are depends on the game, of course, but it might be: straightforward narration of material that can’t be directly performed; engaging with some real-world mechanical tool like dice or character sheets; metatechniques like delivering an internal monologue for the benefit of the other players (while their characters remain unaware).

Despite the prevalence of these other activities, many games (and many players) do strive to be in-character and acting “realistically” (i.e. not monologuing or using other dramatic character-breaking tools) as much of the time as possible. This isn’t necessary for a good game, of course – Microscope is a great example of a powerful story-telling game which doesn’t necessarily require any in-character performance at all – but where you do want to encourage the players to stay in character, you can run into difficulties, as there are some actions necessary in the fiction that simply can’t be reproduced in the real-world performance. (The three example techniques above present some ways to get around that.) As mentioned in the last post, there are games like When the Dark is Gone that manage to stay in-character 100% of the time (at least after the setup phase), but the situations you can portray in such a game are heavily restricted.

An alternative approach is to set up your game so that the time spent out of character feels like time spent in character. Use the mechanics, rules, or game setup to foster in the players the mindset that you want your characters to have. There are plenty of great examples of this, such as:

  • Murderous Ghosts, Doomed Pilgrim, and many other games that explicitly have an adversarial relationship between one group of players playing “the world” and another playing the protagonist(s). This sets a tone where the world is not a fair place and in fact is actively working against the protagonist(s) – heightening the tension and the fear factor for their player(s).
  • The Jenga tower in Dread. A very visible and tangible indicator that everything could at any moment come crashing down on top of your character – again, pushing the tension higher and higher until it finally collapses (creating a very real sense of relief for the players not affected by the downfall!)
  • In Remodel, the various manipulations of the house (represented by a real physical set) reflect and enhance the emotional journeys the characters are taking. Physically ripping up tape to “demolish” parts of the house, for example, provides a powerful cathartic experience and prepares the player for their character’s new beginning.
  • In The Secret Lives of Serial Killers, key information is hidden from one player in order to give them a very real sense of horror and betrayal when it finally comes out.

Perhaps nothing can be more realistic than acting something out in full, but that’s a luxury we don’t often have. By choosing techniques carefully, you can “shortcut” some of the acting process and elicit feelings in your players that match those in the characters without needing a full in-character portrayal. If you know others I’ve missed (and there’ll be plenty), let me know in the comments – I’m keen to try them out!

I’ve been thinking a lot about winning and losing in roleplaying games recently, not least because of several recent games by Vincent Baker that have explicit win (and loss) conditions. Something about these games has really inspired me, but something else has jarred a little – and it’s taken me a while to work out what both those somethings are. It’s been interesting particularly for my current work-in-progress, which pits a thief (or other ne’er-do-well) against the wits of a GM antagonist. Clearly, I could say the thief “wins” if they get away with whatever it is – but is winning-and-losing the right design for this game?

What Works

One thing winning-and-losing games do really well is match the tension out-of-character with that in-character. Pitting the GM’s wits against mine makes the threat very real, and so aligns my mental & emotional state with that of my character. In Doomed Pilgrim, my pilgrim is thinking, “Holy crap, how can I survive this using only my wits??” while I am thinking, “Holy crap, how can I get this pilgrim to survive this using only my wits??” That strong identification with my character (point #4 on this post about immersion, in fact) feels exactly right for my thief’s adventures – I want the tension high as the player uses their cunning and wits to get the thief into and out of trouble, and get away with the prize.

What Doesn’t

But fun though these games are, they lack something for me in terms of replay and longevity – and that’s because they don’t, really, tell that great a story. Sure, they make for a very cool, tense scene – but that’s all it is: one extended scene. As a story audience, I want to see the protagonist develop – if not within that scene, then at least over the course of several scenes. So they survive – phew, thank goodness! Now show me what they do next. And, more importantly, why. But these games aren’t built like that – they’re mostly built as one-shot adventures (sort of) and don’t focus much on the personality of the focus character. (Deliberately, I think! That’s not what they’re trying to do.) They’re like a longer version of a conflict scene in a more narrative-focussed game – and so they’re missing the bits before and after, that frame that conflict and give it meaning. In my thief game, I definitely want to focus on the protagonist’s character development, so a purely win/lose game doesn’t work.

What I’ll Do

So I guess I want a game that’s divided into adventures, each one tense like those winning-and-losing games, but that also strongly promotes character development within and (especially) between those adventures.

To keep the tension high, I think I do want the same “you versus the GM” model – i.e. the GM should be actively trying to thwart the protagonist, rather than (as in some narrative games) just provide an environment that reactively challenges them. The direct antagonism builds the sense of threat – and makes it more personal, too.

An aside: However, I’ll need to increase the win rate. Vincent’s described both Murderous Ghosts and Doomed Pilgrim as having a pretty low chance of winning – somewhere around 1 in 3, I think; certainly less than half – and that doesn’t suit this game, where the protagonist is a master thief. I certainly need to adjust the survival rate – for these games, loss also means death (or doom), which doesn’t work for an extended narrative game – we can’t see character development if the character doesn’t survive for at least a few adventures! Also, their death (if it happens at all) should be a dramatic climax point, not just some mid-adventure mis-step on the part of the player.

A Model For Episodic Character Development

One game that does character development within and between episodic adventures really well is Dogs in the Vineyard (also by Vincent Baker). In Dogs, your job is to save towns from sin. You could call this a “win” condition for each town. But there’s lots of great character development as well – for three reasons I can identify:

  1. The win condition is defined by the protagonists themselves. (Strictly speaking, “save the town” is always the win condition, but what “save” actually means for a given town is decided by the protagonists.) This shows us something of who the protagonists are – what they value and what they overthrow.
  2. The definition of winning is challenged throughout the adventure. The town (or certain elements of it) will inevitably resist the protagonists’ efforts to “save” it. How hard can they push before they’re no longer saving the town, but destroying it? Again, since they decide this themselves, it reveals more about their characters.
  3. There’s an explicit character development phase in between each town. The protagonists reflect, consider whether they did really save the town, and change as a result – with game-mechanical changes to solidify that development for future play.

My game’s going to feel very different to Dogs, I think – but to promote character development despite the GM antagonism, perhaps I can learn something from it.

In the last post, I brainstormed some of the features I want my system to have. In the next post I’ll examine those a bit more closely in terms of RPG theory, but for now I wanted to pick out two that particularly struck me – “Immersive” and “Strategic”.

I guess this is a bit of an aside, really, but they are both things I really enjoy about roleplaying, so I wanted to examine them a bit more closely.

First, I think the terms are a bit woolly, so let me clarify exactly what I mean.

  • Immersive: Providing the experience of “being” a different character. Perceiving the game world as if through that character’s perceptions, reacting to those inputs as if you were that character, and acting on the world according to the capabilities of that character.
  • Strategic: Requiring the players to take a limited amount of information, come up with the best possible plan of action to achieve whatever goals they have, and then perhaps change that plan on-the-fly as the game plays out.

I enjoy both of these a great deal, but it immediately jumped out at me that these two are not compatible, at least not completely. By definition, a strategic game is not about acting “in character” like immersive play is – it’s about making the best plan.

To clarify this with an example… If my character has (using some hypothetical system mechanics), a mediocre intelligence and no points in the “strategy” skill, then immersing myself in a strategic game is going to be very dull because my character is not capable of contributing to a strategy. But as a player, I like strategic games because they challenge my strategic thinking, regardless of what it says on my character sheet.

Another example… If I come up with an excellent plan (objectively) but roll low on my “strategy” test, why does my plan suddenly fail? (Or indeed the reverse – a high roll mysteriously saving an objectively rubbish plan.) Not only does this not make sense (and so it’s not satisfying), but it also requires a lot of work from the GM who has to invent reasons why despite the objective value of the plan, the actual outcome was wildly different.

I guess, in short, I like my strategic play to be very game-focussed, whereas immersion is (by my definition) character-focussed. For strategic play I like a strict set of rules for whatever situation I’m planning, so that I can ensure I’m making the best use of those rules – I don’t care what the rules are governing the character in the planning room. For immersive play I like a believable simulation of the world around the character, and I like to play to that character’s traits, which may or may not include “good at strategy”. The two styles of play are very different – and they therefore require very different systems.

So what does this mean for the system I’m currently working on? Well, it means I need either to pick which of Immersive and Strategic play I want to focus on and build a system appropriate to that, or to build systems for both and find some way to interrelate them.

For now, I think I’m going to focus on the Immersive play. I feel like I’ve done quite a lot of strategic play in my recent roleplaying, and there are plenty of games beyond roleplay that are also heavily strategic – for example, I’ve just started playing Middle Earth Play-By-Mail. Immersion is something that’s a lot harder to come by, at least in my personal experience.

I can always come back later and develop a system for Strategic play – and at that point I could even see if there is a sensible way to combine the two! But for the rest of this series, the system I’m developing will be aiming at Immersive play. In the next post, I’ll examine what that means in RPG theory terms.