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D&D General The History of 'Immersion' in RPGs

D&D historian Jon Peterson has taken a look at the concept of 'immersion' as it related to tabletop roleplaying games, with references to the concept going back to The Wild Hunt (1977), D&D modules like In Search of the Unknown, games like Boot Hill, and Forgotten Realms creator Ed Greenwood speaking in Dragon Magazine.


twh#15-roos-immersion.jpg
 

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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey


Lieslo

Explorer
Part of the fun for me as a DM is in extrapolating the mechanics of the game to what the PCs experience in the world. Sometimes its easy and sometimes a challenge and not every player appreciates it but I'm always striving for immersion
 
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MGibster

Legend
I'm going to have to agree with my esteemed colleague SirGrotius. That is perhaps the best description of immersion that I have ever seen put to writing.
 

jgsugden

Legend
Wow, that's an excellent description of immersion as I understand the concept and aim to achieve in my games. I've taken to heart, in addition, Stephen King's adage of achieving a suspension of disbelief.
That concept is quite a bit older than King... it is from the 1800s, at least.

As a DM, I want my players to feel like there is already an answer to what happens whenever they do something and interact with the world. They make a choice, and the world responds naturally. I don't want them to see me figuring anything out, if possible - I want them to feel like I spent 30,000,000 years planning out every rock, every bug, and every mote of dust that they encounter. I want them to be able to anticipate the reasonable answer, and for it all to make sense.

This is why I usually go with their rulings on novel rules issues. Unless it contradicts, meaningfully, with something I have ruled before and see as important, I'll go with what seems to make sense to them. This is true of how rules work, what their line of sight allows them to see, etc... The more it goes with their instincts, the more easy it is to immerse themselves.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
That concept is quite a bit older than King... it is from the 1800s, at least.
The phrase "suspension of disbelief" dates to Samuel Coleridge, in 1817. The idea, according to about 5 minutes of research, goes back to at least ancient Rome (Horace).
 


Reynard

Legend
I am of two minds regarding the idea that players should not necessarily know the rules and just describe what their character wants to accomplish: on the one hand, I totally understand the goal of immersion and do think for some kinds of players some of the time, not worrying about mechanics helps them make decisions in character; on the other hand, nothing ruins immersion quite like having to backpedal because you did not understand the mechanical consequences of a particular fictional action.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I suspect it goes back as far as telling stories which goes back as far as there have been humans.
Sure. Probably since before Homo sapiens sapiens, for that matter. And I'm sure there were some of those people telling stories around campfires in caves who were doing things like three-act structure and/or in medias res, but they (probably) didn't really have any way to talk about what they were doing.

In the same way, it seems probable they didn't have language to talk about the audience's experience, or about what the audience has to do do to enjoy a work of fiction they know is fiction (which ... arguably isn't exactly what was happening around Stone Age campfires). As I said, a little quick research puts the phrase "suspension of disbelief" at 1817 in Coleridge's Biographia Literaria and indicates others wrote about something that was clearly the same idea in antiquity (and specifically mentions Horace, in ancient Rome).

The heart of the point I'm making, though, is that--though I've read and enjoyed most everything Stephen King has written--the phrase isn't Stephen King's.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I am of two minds regarding the idea that players should not necessarily know the rules and just describe what their character wants to accomplish: on the one hand, I totally understand the goal of immersion and do think for some kinds of players some of the time, not worrying about mechanics helps them make decisions in character; on the other hand, nothing ruins immersion quite like having to backpedal because you did not understand the mechanical consequences of a particular fictional action.
To the extent the mechanics reflect the way the world works, it seems the character/s would (should?) have a pretty good understanding. I don't particularly buy into the idea that the players' not knowing the rules makes for better immersion; I actually believe the players' internalizing the rules (at least for their characters) does.

Then it just comes to knowing the situation before you act--which ... might not always be entirely in character, but I think that's a different concern.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I am of two minds regarding the idea that players should not necessarily know the rules and just describe what their character wants to accomplish: on the one hand, I totally understand the goal of immersion and do think for some kinds of players some of the time, not worrying about mechanics helps them make decisions in character; on the other hand, nothing ruins immersion quite like having to backpedal because you did not understand the mechanical consequences of a particular fictional action.

I'm not sure how deep the connection between immersion and describing what your character is doing, at least not for everyone. I mean, when I'm watching a movie I can either just ignore the movie or analyze how the movie was made. I know there are sets, cameras, CGI and so on, that doesn't mean I can't be immersed in the story.

Similar with game rules. Trying to "force" immersion by trying to ignore the mechanics wouldn't work for me because I know the mechanics are there. That doesn't mean I have to focus on the mechanics (unless that's my preference of course). I try to run a descriptive game and encourage "flair" but there are many ways to encourage immersion. Ignoring rules mechanics does not have to be one of them and IMHO trying to force a style on a group that it doesn't work for is worse.
 


Reynard

Legend
I'm not sure how deep the connection between immersion and describing what your character is doing, at least not for everyone. I mean, when I'm watching a movie I can either just ignore the movie or analyze how the movie was made. I know there are sets, cameras, CGI and so on, that doesn't mean I can't be immersed in the story.
That seems very weird to me. I am not sure I can imagine being immersed in the story while also thinking about what the gaffer might have been doing during the shot.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
That seems very weird to me. I am not sure I can imagine being immersed in the story while also thinking about what the gaffer might have been doing during the shot.
What I'm trying to say: I ignore the gaffer even though I know they're there (well, most of the time) even though I know he's there. Sometimes when reading a book I start thinking about the words and the author's story structure instead of letting myself get immersed. When playing a game, it's my choice whether or not I focus on mechanics.

Maybe someday we'll put on VR goggles and step into the campaign world. Until then I still have to roll polyhedral dice and know what my PC can do in order to interact with the campaign world. Making minor changes to how I declare what my PC is doing won't make much of a difference.
 

MGibster

Legend
Similar with game rules. Trying to "force" immersion by trying to ignore the mechanics wouldn't work for me because I know the mechanics are there. That doesn't mean I have to focus on the mechanics (unless that's my preference of course). I try to run a descriptive game and encourage "flair" but there are many ways to encourage immersion. Ignoring rules mechanics does not have to be one of them and IMHO trying to force a style on a group that it doesn't work for is worse.
The "G" in RPG stands for game. When I'm reading a book or watching a movie I'm always aware that I'm reading a book or watching a movie no matter how into I am. Likewise, no matter how into a game or what rules I'm using I will always realize I'm playing a game.
 

I am of two minds regarding the idea that players should not necessarily know the rules and just describe what their character wants to accomplish: on the one hand, I totally understand the goal of immersion and do think for some kinds of players some of the time, not worrying about mechanics helps them make decisions in character; on the other hand, nothing ruins immersion quite like having to backpedal because you did not understand the mechanical consequences of a particular fictional action.
There's another kind of player who internalizes the mechanics into just another way of describing the scene - saying someone's 'down 12 hit points' is no harder to visualize than a specific description of the exact wound taken. For such players the mechanical description is actually better, because it also ensure continuity of the scene - the differences in how things are imagined won't clash because the ways things will interact is spelled out clearly.

(I am this sort - trying to hide the rules is more immersion breaking than letting me use them to see what's happening.)
 

Lord Mhoram

Adventurer
There's another kind of player who internalizes the mechanics into just another way of describing the scene - saying someone's 'down 12 hit points' is no harder to visualize than a specific description of the exact wound taken. For such players the mechanical description is actually better, because it also ensure continuity of the scene - the differences in how things are imagined won't clash because the ways things will interact is spelled out clearly.

(I am this sort - trying to hide the rules is more immersion breaking than letting me use them to see what's happening.)

I can be this sort, I try to be. I have to know a games rule system inside out to be able to. Part of the reason I stick with games I like for decades. I had no issues doing this with HERO. For me the other side of this is that it almost has to be a traditional game structure for me to be able to do this - using fate points, or drama editing or such pulls me out. Same with conflict resolution over task resolution - I can tie the mechanics of trying to pick a lock to one roll of the die, and the mechanics are the fiction. But if the die roll represents more than just the one action, I have a hard time tying it to the fiction.

I play games that are non traditional when I am not trying for immersion, but for a different kind of play experience.
 

Reynard

Legend
I can be this sort, I try to be. I have to know a games rule system inside out to be able to. Part of the reason I stick with games I like for decades. I had no issues doing this with HERO. For me the other side of this is that it almost has to be a traditional game structure for me to be able to do this - using fate points, or drama editing or such pulls me out. Same with conflict resolution over task resolution - I can tie the mechanics of trying to pick a lock to one roll of the die, and the mechanics are the fiction. But if the die roll represents more than just the one action, I have a hard time tying it to the fiction.

I play games that are non traditional when I am not trying for immersion, but for a different kind of play experience.
That's interesting. I can see it. If that singular die roll is part of the flow of the narrative it becomes almost invisible even as it informs the events in play.
Now that I am thinking about it, I feel like I have been counteracting immersion for a while, since I picked up a tendency to ask for "approaches and goals" from the players instead of just asking, "What do you DO?" Huh.
 

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
Speaking for myself, as someone with a background in stage acting, there is almost nothing I find less immersive than the idea of "acting within the rolled characteristics of characters" that Jon Peterson attributes to Kevin Slimak and Mike Carr. My character is not worried about making decisions that are too smart for himself, so any process that involves that sort of thinking would prevent me from feeling like I'm inhabiting the role of my character.
 


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