Just How Immersive Can You Get?

There are many works of fiction that D&D draws upon for inspiration, as co-creator Gary Gygax made clear with his Appendix N in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide. Jon Peterson identified a theme that some of the Appendix N fiction has in common, known as a "visitation theme." It serves as a useful template for how D&D is portrayed -- now and in the future. By...

There are many works of fiction that D&D draws upon for inspiration, as co-creator Gary Gygax made clear with his Appendix N in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide. Jon Peterson identified a theme that some of the Appendix N fiction has in common, known as a "visitation theme." It serves as a useful template for how D&D is portrayed -- now and in the future.


By Connecticut_Yankee4.jpg: Daniel Carter Beard(1850–1941)

The First Level: Playing Yourself

The visitation theme in fiction is summed up by Jon Peterson in Playing at the World:

There is however a trajectory in fantasy literature running through Burroughs, de Camp and Anderson, which also surfaces in the works of Moorcock and Howard, that demonstrates precisely this sort of connection between fantasy and the denizens of the "real" modern world...The formula is a simple one: plausible contemporary persons undertake a journey to an undiscovered, fantastic realm, where after some adventures they return to their place of origin.

The theme is common with child protagonists, who are more open to fantastic worlds through their imagination, traversing gateways to other realms; Alice in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe being three popular examples. In the hands of an adult -- who brings a developed skill set with them -- things can take quite a different turn. One of the best examples of this idea is Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court:

Morgan applies nineteenth-century engineering know-how to the raw materials of the period, and his accomplishments quickly outstrip those of deranged mystics like Merlin, to say nothing of the martial prowess of the knights themselves. Eventually, in the final confrontation between American ingenuity and English hereditary privilege, Morgan handily butchers the flower of British nobility with dynamite, Gatling guns and electric fences.

A more recent example of this idea in film is Ash Williams in Army of Darkness: a modern time traveler who is thrust into a fantasy world, and uses his modern know-how to his advantage.

Role-playing's unique application of real life concepts (codified monsters and magic, rules for spells, characters neatly divided into races and classes) finds a useful parallel in this fiction theme, where D&D transports its players into a fantasy world for a few hours. It is a halfway between fully immersive role-playing and modern sensibilities -- players are not expected to literally think and act like their characters. In fact, co-creator of D&D's Dave Arneson's first Blackmoor campaign featured the characters playing themselves, as per David Hartlage:

Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor game—the campaign that spawned D&D—began with a gaming group playing fictional versions of themselves in a fantasy world. The characters became champions in series of miniature battles featuring armies clashing above ground. Without any further inspiration, the Blackmoor game might have evolved into a role-playing game such as Chivalry & Sorcery, a game I found short on fun. But somehow, Dave invented a new activity that transformed the campaign and ultimately made a lasting addition to popular culture.

Escape rooms adopt this form of "light" role-play in which the player is expected to be herself, but still bring her know-how to a fictional challenge in order to escape.

There are plenty of reasons why this idea might not appeal to players, of course, not the least of which being that a realistic depiction of a player may not be physically capable of handling the challenges of a fictional universe. For game purposes, it can be more fun to adopt a persona that merges the player's mind with a character's body.

The Second Level: Playing a Hero
If Twain's take on proto-role-playing is a bit jarring to modern audiences, Edgar Rice Burrough's Barsoom series (featuring John Carter) and The Compleat Enchanter stories (featuring Harold Shea) by Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp provides a template that's more familiar to gamers:

Intriguingly, the stories of John Carter and Harold Shea are prominently mentioned by Gygax in the foreword to Dungeons & Dragons as inspirations for the game--together they constitute two out of the four fictions that he expects Dungeons & Dragons to emulate...There is a certain intrinsic kindship between these stories of twentieth-century persons visiting fantasy worlds and the play of Dungeons & Dragons, where we as players set aside our mundane selves temporarily to assume a fantastic role.

In both series, the protagonists are not merely transported to new realms but transformed. Harold Shea discovers he speaks Old Norse, cannot read English, and the world's core physics prevent him from using his modern sensibilities like lighting a match. Similarly, John Carter has great strength and superhuman agility thanks to Mars' lesser gravity and lower atmospheric pressure. The heroes still have their own minds, but they are in different bodies.

Perhaps the most influential of these types of visitation themes is Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions. Holger Carlson, an American-trained Danish engineer, finds himself in a fantasy realm where his newfound armor fits him perfectly, he knows how to use his weapons and ride a horse, and he can speak the local language. Three Hearts and Three Lions gave us D&D's paladin, complete with "laying on hands" and regenerating trolls. Even R.E. Howard's Conan -- another highly influential character on D&D -- was not immune to visitation fiction, in which John O'Brien relives his past life as Conan in "People of the Dark."

This version of visitation fiction is slightly more immersive than the first, and is used to good effect in the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. Our six young heroes are thrust into competent bodies who have equipment that fits them perfectly and (mostly) know how to use them. This is a parallel for D&D itself, which asks players to invest partially in their fantasy character tropes without fully immersing themselves in it: they didn't have to become a fantasy character, they just play one.

Villains & Vigilantes is one of the first superhero role-playing games to formalize this level of immersion, in which a player was the real-life secret identity to the superhero she played in the game. This mimics cosplay as well, in which players adopt a persona of a hero or villain in appearance only. For full-immersion that blurs the line between player and character, we must dive into the third level.

The Third Level: Becoming the Character

Thinking and acting like your character is not unique to Dungeons & Dragons, but it requires a level of commitment above and beyond the first two levels of immersion.

This form of role-play has become increasingly popular with role-play only servers in massive multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs), where most game play is firmly stuck in level two -- players usually talk about real life through their characters without any clear distinction between them. Part of this is certainly due to the medium, where a player is using a computer to connect with his character and thus can only engage with the game at the second level of engagement.

Conversely, Live Action Role-Playing (LARPs) works actively to not use the first level of engagement (like cosplay, an easy mode to slip into since the player is physically part of the game). Many LARPs emphasize level three only. Full immersion at this level can create "bleed" in which the emotions of characters affect players.

Pitching D&D

There's a reason why visitation fiction is popular, and it has its parallels in D&D itself. As Peterson states:

...we need only appreciate that the prevalence of the visitation theme is one of the dominant factors that ensured role-playing games began in a fantasy setting, rather than some other genre. These stories taught reads how to role-play when immersed in a fantasy narrative: how to follow the example of a Connecticut Yankee, of Harold Shea, or Holger Carlson. The immense popularity of Tolkien seeded a global marketplace for fantasy that was cleverly exploited by both Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons, both of which transcended the popular distaste for warfare by setting their action at a great remove from modern weaponry and casting their battles in a world of moral absolutes, among evil beasts that can be slain without qualms.

This technique, which eased readers into fantasy, also eases gamers into role-playing. Visitation fiction lets you dive right in: While there are certainly peculiarities of any fantasy visit, modern players don't have to worry too much if they know how to swing a sword, or ride a horse, or speak the local language. If the upcoming D&D film is to distinguish itself from other fantasy movies, the visitation theme might make the difference.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
Excellent topic! I had never really thought about levels of immersion this way, but it makes sense. While I have always preferred the deeper immersion of portraying characters as individuals unique from those playing them, I also never let the others forget that we are still only playing a game.

I love de Camp and Pratt’s Compleat Enchanter series. Perhaps the only fantasy series with a psychologist as the protagonist!

R.E. Howard also wrote Almuric, which is straight-up Barsoomian portal fantasy.

As much as I love works like John Carter of Mars, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Magicians, I tend to dislike the “you find yourself in the world of a role-playing game” premise. The Guardians of the Flame, for example. Now that I think of it, in the D&D cartoon, do they ever make reference to being in the D&D world, other than falling into the portal via the rollercoaster ride?

I think that the Second Level is missing a prime example, which is Joel Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame series. In it, college students play a D&D-like game and are mystically transported into the fantasy world inside the bodies of their characters. They're able to use all the skills of their characters, but unfortunately sometimes the personalities clash and the body thinks more like the character itself than the player. It's a struggle for the player personality to be dominant over the character mindset. They become stuck in a world of magic and dragons, so they have to learn to live within it. However, at least two of them are engineering students in a world without engineers, and that has a huge impact on them carving a home out of the new world that they find themselves in.


Community Supporter
It's noteworthy that the original D&D never explained what level of immersion was necessary. Gygax's early short stories about the characters in the game implied level 3, but the role of a caller strongly implied level 2 -- you didn't so much role-play a character as manipulate a robot that represents you in the game. Level 3 came later as RPGs evolved and explored beyond dungeon crawling.

The literary term for this--or at least some of this--is "portal fantasy." Anything that involves someone from the real world being transported bodily to a fantasy setting qualifies. The D&D cartoon, Thomas Covenant, Narnia.

I hate it.

Well, "hate" may be too strong a word, but I'm absolutely not a fan of portal fantasy. I don't steadfastly refuse to read it, and there are a few I've enjoyed, but they all start at a serious deficit for me. There have been books where I've really loved the initial concept, but put back on the shelf when I realized they were portal fantasy. I will probably skip the new D&D movie--at least in theaters--if it involves a real world character transported to the Realms (or wherever).

I'm not saying anyone else is wrong for liking it, and the article is certainly valid and well considered, but on a purely personal level, it certainly isn't a lens I'd want to view my D&D through.


Scruffy and Determined
I'm surprised real-play podcasts and streams aren't on here. I mean they are just people playing games, but a lot of the more famous ones are offshoots of better known podcasts and streams, and it's always interesting to see how and why certain people play certain characters, especially when you know them for their personality outside the game. I suppose it's a much more meta version of the third level.


y'know while we're on the subject of Appendix N, I just want to say how disappointed I was that the 5e version was still just a list of fantasy literature (inb4 someone tries to extol me on the virtues of writing over other media). it's definitely longer (and more diverse, wow) and some of my favorite newer books were on that list, but admittedly I don't read as much as play games and watch shows and movies and I'm sure many gamers nowadays use those as inspiration for their games and characters. when Gygax wrote the original Appendix N fantasy in media was scarce; and even comic books were mostly just adaptations of earlier literature. nowadays I can't go onto facebook without seeing a Game of Thrones meme on my wall, and even in the bygone time of my high school years the Lord of the Rings movies were a huge deal for everyone.

heck, the isekai subgenre is a hot trend (read: is absolutely flooding) in Japanese media right now, and that's basically a take on the visitation theme, albeit a lot more gamey and self-conscious. I've always wanted to go on a forum and start a thread where I try and get people to create a new Appendix that lists comics and games and TV shows that can inspire your D&D game, but I feel that time has passed (unless some of you like this idea, then I'll totally try and start that thread, and if one already exist I totally want to see it).

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