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That Thread in Which We Ruminate on the Confluence of Actor Stance, Immersion, and "Playing as if I Was My Character"

So in the "What is the point of GM's notes?" thread, several posters brought up that one of the highest priorities for sandbox-style play is to experience a "living world," but to only do so through the viewpoint of the character.

In almost every case this was described as only being properly facilitated through extensive prefabrication and preexistent notation of the game world by the GM. For sandbox play, adherents described high levels of prep as necessary to produce the needed levels of continuity, without which the desired qualities of "emergent" fiction, player engagement, and sense of "living" world would suffer or be damaged.

Now, let's be clear---the definition of "immersion" is murky. It's subjective, it's personal, and often contentious. What isn't in doubt, though, is that for certain D&D playstyles, there is a very high value expressed around the desirability of "immersion" as an attribute. Regardless of individual personal definitions of what immersion is, in the thread it was always viewed as a positive, desirable trait or condition to achieve during play.

And despite the potential pitfalls and disagreements, I'm very curious as to how and why this particular trait or quality of play has achieved its unique primacy.

So, going back 10 years, I looked at a thread I started defending the concept of dissociated mechanics. And needless to say, I am absolutely terrified and embarrassed at how little I understood about RPG theory, and how absolutely blind I was at the time. My arguments in that thread are laughable, but I was so sure of what I was saying at the time.

For context, I wrote the thread in 2011. In 2011, I had just barely finished running a Pathfinder 1 campaign from level 1 to level 8, lasting 9 months. I had played 4e exactly once, for 2 hours, at an FLGS in the town where I was doing my post-graduate degree. I owned a copy of the old FASA Mechwarrior RPG, and had dabbled with a tiny bit of Top Secret S.I. as a twelve-year-old, but otherwise had literally zero exposure to any other non-D&D games. My main RPG journey went from BECMI > 3.5 > Pathfinder.

I hadn't played a single session of Savage Worlds yet.

I bring this back up, because I also went back and read the original dissociated mechanics essay by Justin Alexander.

And having significantly more experience with non-D&D systems now, my response to the essay was markedly different. Oddly, I continue to agree to the general principle. However you want to term the binary (associative/dissociative), I understood the functional equivalence of, "Mechanics are associated when decisions/processes invoked by the player correlate to decisions/processes invoked by the character in the fiction."

But even if I kind-of/sort-of agree with the concept in principle, I radically disagree now with his take on what non-diegetic mechanics do. (The diegesis / non-diegesis argument is brought up in a later reddit thread here: ).

From where I stand now, the entire concept of "association" only makes sense if the apex priority of play is immersion.

And now having significantly more experience in the realm of RPGs, I'm now wholly of the opinion that the pursuit of immersion is now much like the pursuit of "realism" in RPG play --- it's largely illusory, ephemeral, difficult to obtain, and generally speaking, impractical to attempt to achieve as anything more than a fleeting (if enjoyable) side-effect.

Don't get me wrong, I've definitely experienced immersion in play. Even if it's somewhat a conceit, I can say there have been times when I have fleetingly experienced it, for brief moments. That sensation of the present, real world slowly slipping into the background as the mind's eye roves and focuses within the fictional world. For brief moments feeling some of the feelings of my character, having vague emotional responses as if I was my character.

But my recent play using the Ironsworn rules has given a new perspective on this. And I will say that the experience has not been "immersive" in the same way. And I'm even willing to admit that there are elements of Ironsworn that probably make it more difficult to realize that kind of in-character immersion.

But here's what's been very different---how much I care about the outcomes for the characters involved when I play Ironsworn. Even if I'm not as fully enmeshed or "immersed" in the reality of the fiction, the level of input into the fiction for the players creates a different kind of immersion---there's immersion in the scene, the stakes, and the outcome for the players and the inhabitants of the fiction that's different than D&D, GURPS, or Savage Worlds.

I'm anxious to hear from other posters, but there was one more thing I ran into as I went through the reddit thread. There's an article from a game designer of interactive fiction, stored on the internet archives that I found fascinating.

I was fascinated by the separation between the three parts, or partitions of personality while playing interactive fiction---the player, the character-as-cipher, and the character-as-fiction.

And I think there's a connection to be explored about how immersion is achieved---or not achieved, or even desired---where the intersection of those three concepts carries some weight.

And I wonder if the in-character sort of immersion can only be achieved when the player and character-as-cipher aspects are set aside.

Anyway, lots more to ruminate on, but I'm anxious and excited to hear what others have to say.

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My attempts at immersion are constantly blocked by my group!

Whenever my character sings, I want to break out into a musical number in real life but they stop me!

Whenever my mages would cast magic missle, I would DAB to simulate the somantic components, but they didn't like that either!

They also disapproved me autotuning my voice when I wanted to play an Android in Starfinder!


Yes, its pretty subjective. And tricky. Detailed notes, as I am sure have been discussed, can add to immersion, but also serve as a sort of trap, actually limiting world engagement.

What engages players, and gets them into the game, are the same. One person's narrativist motivator is anothers meta-moodbreaker.

What the game is about is often the bridge. CoC does well with selective detail: for investigation, to set tone, and of course to bring the crazy. But the system also allows for the abstract, or role-played, resolution of any number of lesser or mundane tasks. D&D put the focus clearly on exploration, combat, magic, and role-played NPC encounters. Usually with some degree of prep, and details on NPC/Monster capabilities. By AD&D we did have more on the wider world--as the DM would dictate it--but outside core activities, detail was pretty light.

Of course, CoC does not have sandbox pretensions, which barely make sense in its setting (lets ignore the Mythos and teach classes and fix cars instead). D&D has always had some sandbox capability--but much of that was pretty crude, and it was clear from early on that the DM would create a dungeon, an adventure, or campaign, that would place some definition around what the PCs would do.

Actor Stance as a concept doesn't quite capture what a lot of sandbox and living world GMs mean when they talk about acting through their character. The hard limit, for a lot, not all, is you can or should only impact the setting through your character (they would reject powers given to their player to shape the setting that don't reflect powers the character itself has for example). But a lot of these same GMs and players are much less concerned about players acting on out of character knowledge (that is a general concern you find in the hobby, in this style it is sometimes policed, but many sandbox campaigns feature people essentially playing themselves and even acting on real world knowledge). All that said, I think where people get tripped up is the absolutism. I think these kinds of campaigns can definitely work well when the players feel like they are exploring a world external to themselves. That doesn't mean every single part of the game needs to be in character (talking out of character is a very important social element of play and important for enhancing player understanding of the setting), and it doesn't mean there will not be edge cases around the whole 'impacting the setting through your character thing'. Sometimes a little bit of 'dissociated mechanics' is fine. It is when it overwhelms play or is hard to ignore peoples really start to have issues I think


I don't find the Alexandrian's disassociated/associated argument persuasive, particularly as it applies to what is or isn't a roleplaying game, especially due to the not-so-veiled Gatekeeping, BadWrongFun, and OneTrueWayism undertones of his article.

It also discounts, IMHO, how "disassociated," meta-mechanics, or non-diegetic mechanics can actually enhance in-character immersion (for some people). Disassociated mechanic are not inherently an immersion-breaking mechanic or a cessation of roleplaying for everyone as they are sometimes made out to be. For example, Fate points are commonly cited as being a disassociated mechanics that takes some people out of in-character immersion because they are spending a currency that the character can't know about. However, my own players in Fate have been highly immersed in roleplaying their characters while spending fate points. Are they necessarily 100 percent in-character while doing it? Who cares so long as they are immersed in the game and thinking about roleplaying their characters? Several players have conveyed to me, that fate points helped them reflect upon and contextualize moments in-character that are important enough for their character to achieve that it's worth spending this scarce resource on while also reinforcing that aspect of their character through the fiction.

I get the feeling from @innerdude's post that they were referring to their 2011 self not having played SW, not their 2021 self.
He has even talked about it a LOT in the thread that they say this one is derived from.


Unserious gamer
Honestly, I've never really agreed with associating immersion with any sort of system of gameplay. For me, immersion has always been linked to periods of freeform narrative, to the thespian and theatrical aspects of the game. I just think more narrative focused systems drive the gameplay flow to that state more often. It's easier to speak freely when I know the system is granting me permission to create details as needed without having to check if they meet a credibility test.


Mod Squad
Staff member
And despite the potential pitfalls and disagreements, I'm very curious as to how and why this particular trait or quality of play has achieved its unique primacy.

So, there's a lot of game theory verbiage in your post, but I think we can get at this element without referring to games at all, because it isn't a quality of games, specifically.

Most of us have probably had the experience of watching a movie or TV show, or reading a book, and forgetting that we are doing so. We become absorbed into the fiction, and the outside world drops away. You no longer sense the person sitting next to you in the theater. You no longer notice you are turning pages. That the real world exists is forgotten for the moment. That, in a nutshell, is immersion. Immersion is sought in RPGs for the same reason it is sought in movies, TV, theater, and books.

Now, in RPGs, we are usually talking about a subset of that kind of immersion - immersion in the first-person experience of a single character. But the reason that experience is important to some is still the same.

Mind you, I think the assertion that you cannot be role playing while using dissociative/non-diagetic mechanics is like saying an actor cannot actually be feeling emotions while remembering their blocking, where the camera/audience is and adjusting to suit, or recalling their lines. I can accept that maintaining immersion in the role can be harder when your mechanics are outside the fiction, but it is not impossible. Humans aren't great at multitasking, but we can sometimes achieve it to some degree.


Mind you, I think the assertion that you cannot be role playing while using dissociative/non-diagetic mechanics is like saying an actor cannot actually be feeling emotions while remembering their blocking, where the camera/audience is and adjusting to suit, or recalling their lines. I can accept that maintaining immersion in the role can be harder when your mechanics are outside the fiction, but it is not impossible. Humans aren't great at multitasking, but we can sometimes achieve it to some degree.
I often think about it like improv comedy. The improv comedian is both in-character while also thinking about how they can elicit a reaction from the audience from their in-character performance. I agree that thinking about roleplaying as strictly in-character/out-of-character tends to miss a lot of the complexities and subtleties at play here. Where I personally take issue is when pure actor stance is taken as the OneTrueWay to have GoodCorrectFun or the ideal that all roleplay should aspire to.


Do people prefer one type over the other? I tend to have varying scales of players who go back and forth. One player likes to talk in 1st person (I cast fireball) and another in 2nd (My guy casts fireball) person. There appears to be a lot of overlap and one cannot play 100% one way or the other.

I also wonder how much of this is determined by the style of the DM and what he rewards or models.


Small God of the Dozens
1st and 2nd person are both fine ways to play. I do find that players who really target immersion as a key goal of play will normally gravitate to the 1st person. GM style helps too. For example, addressing the characters by name, rather than using the players names, is a seemingly small but actually fairly useful style item.

I don't much care for actor stance as perfect synonym for immersive play either. Partially because I don't care for stances as a useful descriptor of RPG play, or at least I don't care for the kind of discussions they tend to produce.

I also think immersion has more flavours than just the first-person all-in-character version that tends to get talked about a lot.


I think we often have an issue with conflating tools and goals. I am someone who places a very high priority on feeling like my character in the moment, but for me a lot of the tools Justin Alexander scoffed at in his initial essay actually aid that sense. We can have similar goals, but require different processes and tools to get there.

We have just started playing Infinity. I'm pretty sure a number of folks would consider Momentum to be a disassociated mechanic, but we are finding that it enables a number of situations in the fiction that are not well represented in other games. Like taking time to observe your environment often means you are better prepared for what's coming even if nothing seems amiss.


Indeed, I think the term "actor stance" was formulated neglecting what actors actually do, which is a bit of a pity.

In my experience the notion of actor stance often associates itself with Method Acting which is actually not all that well regarded anymore. The idea that you have to suffer for your art (calling on past experiences in your own life) and never break character on set. A lot of more modern sorts of acting techniques embrace just being present, trying different things, and the ability to experience the emotion only in the moment.

The Warner-Loughlin technique is specifically a response to Method.


Then it is based in a misunderstanding of method acting - which I suppose is what you get when folks who are making jargon about one thing borrow language from areas that they aren't expert on.

To be fair it's a misunderstanding of method that a fair number of professional actors also engage in.


Mod Squad
Staff member
To be fair it's a misunderstanding of method that a fair number of professional actors also engage in.

Surely. It is a misunderstanding propagated in the media itself, but that doesn't make it good.

For those who do not understand what we are talking about, I give you...
Method acting is often depicted as an actor being "too in character" and "never breaking character". As if when you are playing Al Capone, you keep the accent up all the time, you bring your behavior in line with Al Capone's behavior, you even think like Al Capone, even off set. The depiction is that a method actor will become Al Capone, to the point of hardly needing a script.

That's an inaccurate depiction.

Method acting is using a set of practices (the "method" in the name) to draw upon your own experiences to bring yourself into an emotional state similar to the character's. It is, in fact, specifically about bringing notions and feelings from outside the fiction into the enactment of the fiction.

The problem isn't that the actor "is Al Capone". It is that, when they have a scene where they beat someone's head in with a baseball bat, the actor gets themself into the emotional state you'd need to be in for that action. Then, the director yells, "Cut!" and... those emotions are no longer appropriate, and cannot be processed normally while walking over the the craft services table for lunch.

This can make it very difficult to deal with the actor - "Cripes, Fred, why are you made at me? I'm just a props guy!" - and moreover it is not good for the actor's psychological health. Method acting is/was associated with emotional fatigue, and sleep loss/deprivation to the point of psychological disturbance.

In the end, immersion be damned, I do not want the player of a barbarian to be as worked up as the character is.
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That's where the notion for suffering for craft comes in, usually with he conceit that your only other choice is being performative or hamming it up. I think that reliving past traumas is bad for both the actor and the performance. That's why I am such a fan of the Warner=Laughlin technique because it grounds the emotional center of your performance in empathy for your character. We should not have relive our personal tragedies to have grounded performances.

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