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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

Mannahnin

Adventurer
Perhaps, but in many cases the results are quite justifiable in the fiction - your body resists the poison, the spell just doesn't work on you this time, you were able to duck-and-cover just as the fireball hit - and those I can live with just fine.

I'll freely admit, though, that there's times where giving a save just makes no sense but the game demands I do it anyway; and those do bug me.
And Gary's explanations for it in the 1E DMG are quite clear that Saves are meant to encompass potential changes to the described situation in the fiction. One of being a fighter chained to a rock being breathed on by a dragon, where a passed save means there turns out to be a crack in the rock which the fighter is able to duck into to reduce the effect of the breath.

Whether one human's body is able to resist and (mechanically, at least) ignore the effects of a toxin which instantly kills another human being is something we've accepted as granted since the 80s, I suspect, but probably also doesn't hold up to scrutiny if we compare it to reality.

Some of the "meta-fiction" game elements I suspect we accept in part from long habit, even if we're inclined to look suspiciously at newer meta-fictional mechanics. Kind of like that thing about how any technology around when we're born is normal and routine and just part of how the world works. And any technology which emerges when we're in our adolescence is new and exciting and we can probably get a job with it. And any technology which comes out once we're middle aged is newfangled and annoying. :D
 

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Yeah, a fair point, that. At least at higher levels.

Well, yeah, level makes a difference; there's not much disruptive on the typical 1st to 2nd level hit point setup in almost any D&D variant since that's within the damage range of normal weapons or at least critical hits by same. But the higher you get above that, the more the pacing function and other fundamentally metamechanical reinforcement systems become obvious.
 

Two things here.

First, if one sees hit points as always including at least some minor "meat" component, the fictional results hold up. Failing that, incoroprate a body-fatigue points system where the body points are mostly (or all) meat and the fatigue points are just nicks, bruises, and - yes - fatigue; and it still holds up.

But as I noted, that's also the rationale for a lot of metamechanic defense functions, too. They still serve pretty much the same function, its just a question whether they're unified or separate subsystems.
 

And Gary's explanations for it in the 1E DMG are quite clear that Saves are meant to encompass potential changes to the described situation in the fiction. One of being a fighter chained to a rock being breathed on by a dragon, where a passed save means there turns out to be a crack in the rock which the fighter is able to duck into to reduce the effect of the breath.

The things that became Reflex saves in later editions were always the hardest sells here and the place where certain cinematic conceits were the most visible, because, as with some situations in fiction, particularly more pulpy and visual fiction, the explanation for how the character pulls it off can be pretty unrealistic.

Whether one human's body is able to resist and (mechanically, at least) ignore the effects of a toxin which instantly kills another human being is something we've accepted as granted since the 80s, I suspect, but probably also doesn't hold up to scrutiny if we compare it to reality.

Well, part of the problem there was that early on save-or-die poisons were almost the default in D&D, and poisons that not only kill you, but do it instantly are, well, not exactly common; they're pretty much all neurotoxins. Most poisons either do other things, or, frankly, would likely be better represented by hit point damage anyway (there's no particular reason necrotoxins should be all-or-nothing). So it was an unrealistic solution to (frequently) unrealistic problems.

Some of the "meta-fiction" game elements I suspect we accept in part from long habit, even if we're inclined to look suspiciously at newer meta-fictional mechanics. Kind of like that thing about how any technology around when we're born is normal and routine and just part of how the world works. And any technology which emerges when we're in our adolescence is new and exciting and we can probably get a job with it. And any technology which comes out once we're middle aged is newfangled and annoying. :D

Yup. D&D has all kinds of metafiction mechanics built into them from hit points and saves to, far as that goes, fire and forget spells. The latter often have some sort of in-setting rationale, but the reality is that they work that way because it was relatively tidy and easy to do them that way.
 

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
Other than some trivialities which for these purposes don't matter, I agree with this.

Ah - here we get to it: I see the heart of roleplaying in an RPG to in fact be that characterization and portrayal piece; as the developed characterization and personality is then going to (ideally!) directly inform or even outright dictate my decisions on what my character tries to do in a given situation, with game mechanics often determining whether that attempt succeeds or not.

In other words, the characterization is what drives the decisions; not the other way round.
I’m not sure what you mean by this. The way I see it, characterization/portrayal is the outward manifestation of decisions made in the mind of the player. We at the table find out who the character is based on what s/he does. And, sure, consistency is important, and there’s some feedback as far as imagining yourself as the established character when making your character’s decisions, but I don’t understand how a player’s decisions can be said to have their origin in the characterization of the character. It just seems opposite to the actual causal process of how characterization comes about. It also doesn’t sound very immersive to me. I’d much rather find out who my character is by the decisions s/he makes than decide who s/he is beforehand and try to come up with decisions that fit.

That an RPG gives more latitude than a scripted play isn't in doubt; and reading this it's possible we're trying to say much the same thing in almost-opposite ways. :)
I think the primary strength of RPGs as an activity is the latitude the players have not just over the characterization of their characters but over their actions/decisions as well, and I prefer an approach that embraces the player’s ability to directly author those actions in play. Placing the character’s ability scores/character sheet in an intermediary position between the player and the decisions of their character, I feel, lessens the direct experience of being one’s character.

I think there's a lot of parallels, particularly once a stage actor does any ad-libbing. But yes, actors are in some ways robots doing what they're told; the best ones overcome this and make the role their own.
In my experience, it isn’t so much a matter of overcoming the restraints of script and blocking but of learning and internalizing them so well that they all but disappear from the actor’s consciousness, so they can fully inhabit their part without those distractions. Roleplaying in an RPG, to me, is quite different because I write what my character says and does. That's the focus.

Authorship is to me a side effect of play rather than a specific meta-goal. In the moment my main meta-goal is usually to entertain those at the table, much like an actor's main goal is (usually) to entertain those in the audience; with the differnce of course being that an actor can't often expect the audience to provide entertainment in return where an RPGer, one hopes, can.
But isn't the means by which you entertain the group authoring something entertaining for your character to do/say?

I suppose I see it that while I, the player, get to make up the actions my character takes,* I also have to accept that there's some built-in limitations that go with it that are sometimes going to get in the way whether I want them to or not; and some of those limitations are represented by the numbers (and other things) on my character sheet.

* - the last word in that quote really should be "attempts", in that while many things can quite reasonably stop an action from succeeding nothing can stop it from being tried.
Of course by the actions my character takes I mean the actions I declare for it, and those actions are, also of course, subject to the game's processes of resolution. I don't, however, see self or group censorship of my roleplaying based on the numbers on my character sheet as one of those processes.
 

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
Since we know that average is 10-11 average, we know that below that is below average intelligence and above that is above average intelligence. We can use our real world knowledge of what that means to figure out approximately how our characters should act according to that intelligence score.
I would think the way my character is established as having a below or above average intelligence is by the rate at which s/he succeeds or fails at intelligence related tasks.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I would think the way my character is established as having a below or above average intelligence is by the rate at which s/he succeeds or fails at intelligence related tasks.
Not according to the book. The book clearly tells you what intelligence represents, so if you have a low intelligence, you also have a low ability to reason, remember, etc. Nothing forces you to roleplay that out, but in my opinion it should be roleplayed out.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
And Gary's explanations for it in the 1E DMG are quite clear that Saves are meant to encompass potential changes to the described situation in the fiction. One of being a fighter chained to a rock being breathed on by a dragon, where a passed save means there turns out to be a crack in the rock which the fighter is able to duck into to reduce the effect of the breath.
And that specific example has always kind of irked me a bit, right from when I first read it, as it struck me as being a bit too far over-the-top.
Whether one human's body is able to resist and (mechanically, at least) ignore the effects of a toxin which instantly kills another human being is something we've accepted as granted since the 80s, I suspect, but probably also doesn't hold up to scrutiny if we compare it to reality.
I've often thought of a made save vs deadly poison as signifying the poison - for whatever reason - never entered the victim's bloodstream at all, depending on the means of delivering said poison. A nick with a poisoned knife? Maybe the part of the blade that did the nicking didn't happen to have any poison on it. A poisoned crossbow bolt into the gut? Yeah, not so believable if that save gets made. :)

For made saves vs lesser poisons, some people in real life are in fact more resistant to some toxins than are other people, so I can live with it in the fiction also.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I would think the way my character is established as having a below or above average intelligence is by the rate at which s/he succeeds or fails at intelligence related tasks.
So let's say, then, that you're playing a new character who due to evil dice pretty much blows her first six or eight or fifteen intelligence checks.

This, by your rationale here quoted, starts to strongly establish her in the fiction as having less than stellar intelligence.

My question is: how does this get "locked in" going forward? Does she now start taking a penalty on future int. checks, or roll at disadvantage, or something similar? Put another way, in what way will that now-established-to-be-low intelligence be mechanically reflected?

This is relevant in that her low int. won't be very believable or consistent if the dice turn around and she suddenly starts succeeding on all the same sort of int. checks she failed last week.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I’m not sure what you mean by this. The way I see it, characterization/portrayal is the outward manifestation of decisions made in the mind of the player. We at the table find out who the character is based on what s/he does. And, sure, consistency is important, and there’s some feedback as far as imagining yourself as the established character when making your character’s decisions, but I don’t understand how a player’s decisions can be said to have their origin in the characterization of the character. It just seems opposite to the actual causal process of how characterization comes about. It also doesn’t sound very immersive to me. I’d much rather find out who my character is by the decisions s/he makes than decide who s/he is beforehand and try to come up with decisions that fit.
Chicken-and-egg, I suppose. Once I've got all the relevant bits and pieces together to inform my roleplay - including the various choices I've made during char-gen plus the numbers the dice have given me to work with - I'll then come up with the basics of a personality and outlook for the character. Then, once the character comes into play, the in-game decisions it makes (or that I-as-its-player make for it) will ideally be made through the character's eyes and as extensions of that personality and outlook.

To me this is more immersive, in that - again ideally - I can "inhabit" the character right from square one and make decisions as if I was the character.
I think the primary strength of RPGs as an activity is the latitude the players have not just over the characterization of their characters but over their actions/decisions as well, and I prefer an approach that embraces the player’s ability to directly author those actions in play. Placing the character’s ability scores/character sheet in an intermediary position between the player and the decisions of their character, I feel, lessens the direct experience of being one’s character.
What ends up happening there is you get two characters in one: the character that the sheet seems to suggest, and the character you're actually playing. If-when these get too far apart, as either fellow player or DM I'm likely to raise a squawk.
In my experience, it isn’t so much a matter of overcoming the restraints of script and blocking but of learning and internalizing them so well that they all but disappear from the actor’s consciousness, so they can fully inhabit their part without those distractions. Roleplaying in an RPG, to me, is quite different because I write what my character says and does. That's the focus.
I see it more as in RPGing you don't have to worry about reaching the point of the script and blocking restraints disappearing from your consciousness, because they're already gone to begin with. From there, it's easy enough to just inhabit the character and have it do what it would do.
But isn't the means by which you entertain the group authoring something entertaining for your character to do/say?
Semantics, perhaps, but when I think of "authoring" what comes to mind is preparing something ahead of time; as opposed to improvising where nothing is authored and it just happens. Sure, after the fact one can look back in hindsight and say things were authored, but in the moment I don't see that as what I'm doing (and I'd think it somewhat pretentious if I did).
Of course by the actions my character takes I mean the actions I declare for it, and those actions are, also of course, subject to the game's processes of resolution. I don't, however, see self or group censorship of my roleplaying based on the numbers on my character sheet as one of those processes.
I certainly do, as one of those underlying game-based processes is - within reason - to play to your numbers.
 

Hussar

Legend
I would think the way my character is established as having a below or above average intelligence is by the rate at which s/he succeeds or fails at intelligence related tasks.
But there are a number of things that your character does that are based on intelligence that are not checks. Tactical acumen, for example. Being able to remember details. If you are playing a low Int character, do you forgo taking notes? Do you make bad tactical decisions? So on and so forth.

There are far more ways to demonstrate and illustrate a character than simply through random die checks.
 

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
Not according to the book. The book clearly tells you what intelligence represents, so if you have a low intelligence, you also have a low ability to reason, remember, etc. Nothing forces you to roleplay that out, but in my opinion it should be roleplayed out.
I reject the idea that things outside the game-world, like the text of a rulebook, establishes anything about my character. I think we might be working with different definitions of what it means for fiction to be established. Again, I prefer to roleplay in a “non-scripted” fashion which, for me, is more immersive than “roleplaying out” preconceived aspects of a character. Honoring established fiction, i.e. events that have been revealed to have happened in the game-world during the course of play, is also important in my view.
 

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
So let's say, then, that you're playing a new character who due to evil dice pretty much blows her first six or eight or fifteen intelligence checks.

This, by your rationale here quoted, starts to strongly establish her in the fiction as having less than stellar intelligence.

My question is: how does this get "locked in" going forward? Does she now start taking a penalty on future int. checks, or roll at disadvantage, or something similar? Put another way, in what way will that now-established-to-be-low intelligence be mechanically reflected?

This is relevant in that her low int. won't be very believable or consistent if the dice turn around and she suddenly starts succeeding on all the same sort of int. checks she failed last week.

I’m not sure I understand why it needs to be “locked in”. I mean, it’s locked in to the extent that that’s what happened. If something different starts happening, then that creates some new fiction about the character. Maybe she’s not as dumb as we all thought.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I reject the idea that things outside the game-world, like the text of a rulebook, establishes anything about my character. I think we might be working with different definitions of what it means for fiction to be established. Again, I prefer to roleplay in a “non-scripted” fashion which, for me, is more immersive than “roleplaying out” preconceived aspects of a character. Honoring established fiction, i.e. events that have been revealed to have happened in the game-world during the course of play, is also important in my view.
That's fine, but your rejection constitutes at the very least a home brew view of the game. Your home brew of what intelligence means in D&D doesn't invalidate what I've said here regarding how the game uses low stat numbers.
 

That's fine, but your rejection constitutes at the very least a home brew view of the game. Your home brew of what intelligence means in D&D doesn't invalidate what I've said here regarding how the game uses low stat numbers.
You said yourself: “Nothing forces you to roleplay that out, but in my opinion it should be roleplayed out.”

so, yeah, there’s that.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
You said yourself: “Nothing forces you to roleplay that out, but in my opinion it should be roleplayed out.”

so, yeah, there’s that.
You aren't forced to follow what the game says intelligence is, no. That doesn't stop intelligence from being what it is as laid out by the game. Here's an example. Just like the game tells me what intelligence is, the game also tells me what an orc is. The game does not force my character to roleplay it as an orc, though. I can choose to roleplay that orc as a goat. However I choose to roleplay, though, it's still an orc. However you choose to roleplay intelligence, in the game intelligence is low reasoning ability, low mental acuity and low memory.
 

You aren't forced to follow what the game says intelligence is, no. That doesn't stop intelligence from being what it is as laid out by the game. Here's an example. Just like the game tells me what intelligence is, the game also tells me what an orc is. The game does not force my character to roleplay it as an orc, though. I can choose to roleplay that orc as a goat. However I choose to roleplay, though, it's still an orc. However you choose to roleplay intelligence, in the game intelligence is low reasoning ability, low mental acuity and low memory.
Point is: @Hriston is not violating RAW if that is what is so important to you. But your presentation is confusing since you say it is not “forced” then you turn around and say they are homebrewing how to roleplay.

You’re good at finding and quoting rules: show us where it is prescribed how one must roleplay according to stats.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Point is: @Hriston is not violating RAW if that is what is so important to you. But your presentation is confusing since you say it is not “forced” then you turn around and say they are homebrewing how to roleplay.
It's not forced, but if you are going against what the game lays out(forced or otherwise), it's a home brew. Most people play the game the way game says it should be played. The key there is should, not must.

"Is a character muscle-bound and insightful? Brilliantand charming? Nimble and hardy? Ability scores define these qualities - a creature's assets as well as weaknesses."

The game does not leave it open. It doesn't say, "You can play stats any way you feel like. You want to be a genius with a 3 intelligence, go for it." Nor does it say, "You must play a PC with a 5 intelligence as stupid." However, it does very clearly define that a character with a low intelligence is stupid. If you want to change that, you have to go against the game definition of what stats mean. That qualifies as home brew in my book.
 
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Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
Chicken-and-egg, I suppose. Once I've got all the relevant bits and pieces together to inform my roleplay - including the various choices I've made during char-gen plus the numbers the dice have given me to work with - I'll then come up with the basics of a personality and outlook for the character. Then, once the character comes into play, the in-game decisions it makes (or that I-as-its-player make for it) will ideally be made through the character's eyes and as extensions of that personality and outlook.

To me this is more immersive, in that - again ideally - I can "inhabit" the character right from square one and make decisions as if I was the character.
More immersive than what, though? I think there's a difference between making decisions based on what I think my character would do (which I don't find very immersive at all) and making decisions as my character. Is that the sort of difference you have in mind?

What ends up happening there is you get two characters in one: the character that the sheet seems to suggest, and the character you're actually playing. If-when these get too far apart, as either fellow player or DM I'm likely to raise a squawk.
All I can say is I agree with @Campbell's statement up-thread (if I'm remembering/paraphrasing correctly) that any perceived discrepancy between my character as established by in-game events and what's written on the character sheet should be settled in favor of the former.

I see it more as in RPGing you don't have to worry about reaching the point of the script and blocking restraints disappearing from your consciousness, because they're already gone to begin with. From there, it's easy enough to just inhabit the character and have it do what it would do.
The character doesn't do anything without the player deciding what it does. I find that my immersion depends on those decisions closely resembling the decisions people make about what they themselves do. I don't think most people's decisions hinge on ideas of what they would do. I think people are more concerned with doing what they want to do or what they think they should do. I mean, who makes decisions by thinking about themselves and what type of person they are and then asking themselves what that type of person would do?

Semantics, perhaps, but when I think of "authoring" what comes to mind is preparing something ahead of time; as opposed to improvising where nothing is authored and it just happens. Sure, after the fact one can look back in hindsight and say things were authored, but in the moment I don't see that as what I'm doing (and I'd think it somewhat pretentious if I did).
Improvised authorship is still authorship, but I think I get the distinction you're making. I don't think of myself as an author when I'm roleplaying (unless I happen to be roleplaying an author). I think of myself as the character. What results, however, is an act of authorship. I made something up about my character.

I certainly do, as one of those underlying game-based processes is - within reason - to play to your numbers.
Would you say that, in your games, and seeing that this thread is in the D&D forum, that this is seen as an unstated rule of the game? It certainly isn't in my games, but I think if it were a rule or had some mechanical backing in the rules, I might be more tolerant of it as a resolution process. For instance, if I as a player had to succeed on an Intelligence check for my character to make the "come up with a plan" move, I wouldn't find it nearly as un-immersive as trying to gauge my character's plan making to its Intelligence score.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
This...
I reject the idea that things outside the game-world, like the text of a rulebook, establishes anything about my character. I think we might be working with different definitions of what it means for fiction to be established. Again, I prefer to roleplay in a “non-scripted” fashion which, for me, is more immersive than “roleplaying out” preconceived aspects of a character.
...is quite different from this:
Honoring established fiction, i.e. events that have been revealed to have happened in the game-world during the course of play, is also important in my view.
The latter is very important.

As for the former, and going back to the difference between stage acting and RPGing for a minute, just because the character's your own and doesn't have to follow scripted lines doesn't excuse you-as-its-portrayer from paying attention to the guidelines established (in the script notes///on the character sheet) for/around said character and having those guidelines inform your portrayal. Wilfully ignoring those guidelines falls, IMO, into pretty much the same bucket as wilfully ignoring the dice on those occasions when you don't like what they roll.

Put another way: honour what's on the character sheet as established fiction, because it is. It's backstory, in a way, and falls under the same aegis as the backstory the DM has established for the setting: that being a reflection of what was in place before play began. It's kind of a brute-force mechanical summation of the results of what you'd have got if you had long-form-roleplayed this character through all of the x-many years of its life before joining the adventuring crew.
 

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