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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

It's a common misapprehension. The detail and contrast in what can be imagined isn't constrained by the scale of subject. Only by the mind of the imaginer. Instead of putting effort into being a different person, effort is put into being in a different world.

The problem with that is it assumes the effort for the two is similar. That's not a premise I consider sound, especially since many gaming worlds are not that dissimilar to each other.
 

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clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Supporter
The problem with that is it assumes the effort for the two is similar. That's not a premise I consider sound, especially since many gaming worlds are not that dissimilar to each other.
How well realised they are can be hugely dissimilar, even portraying exactly the same world. Say two campaigns set in the most standard world - Faerun - at two different tables that one world can feel like two places. Each group emphasising different aspects of its places, creatures, factions, and metaphysics.

EDIT Again it seems to come down to interests. I'm interested in the game world. I gather you are interested in your character. Which is narrower? On matter of scale, surely the character?! On matter however of detail, contrasts, and immersion, I think they are equal. The larger question - for me at least - is what makes their experiences, choices and outcomes dissimilar from those in our real world?
 

Hussar

Legend
Not at all, it remains as fresh as the myriad of situations I find to immerse myself in. Me as eldritch knight swept down a rushing underground river to escape an enraged black dragon. Me as fiend pact warlock having made one deal too many. Me as arcane trickster escaping over winter rooftops. Immersion. In the world. For me it is the most immersive to imagine that I am really there.

For you it might become tired or @Thomas Shey feel narrow. I would say that happens only if you find yourself unable to imagine otherwise. And I would not make any similar criticism: I can well appreciate how some might enjoy pretending to be a different person - immersion in being someone else rather than somewhere else.
Sorry, I wasn't clear.

Tiresome for everyone else at the table. Watching someone play the same character over and over and over is about as much fun as watching paint dry.
 


Hussar

Legend
This pendulum swings both ways Hussar. Yes there are other people at the table, and what do you do if those other people don't want what you are describing and prefer to basically play themselves, or play with very thin characterization? I don't force people at my table to play a certain way. I let them play the game how they are comfortable. If that means talking in first person, fine. If it means avoiding talking in first person, fine. I am not there to enforce a playstyle or RPG philosophy. I am there to have a functioning group. And most functioning groups are made up of different kinds of players. Some immerse through heavy characterization. Some, I would say most that I've encountered, immerse primarily by seeing the world through the eyes of their character (not in the sense of adopting that character's personality traits, but simply feeling like they are there, in the shoes of the character, on the ground). Do what works for you, but I don't run games or play the way Hussar wants me to. I run and play games the way I want to, the way my players want to, and the way that works at my table.
Simple answer?

I don't play with those people because it's zero fun for me.
 

Hussar

Legend
So you don't like long campaigns?
That's a bit obtuse.

I'm obviously talking from campaign to campaign. Playing your character true to character and portraying that character within a given campaign is central to immersion and aids in the immersion of everyone else at the table.

Campaign length doesn't really enter into it.
 

That's a bit obtuse.
Sorry. That is a fair assessment of my comment.

I'm obviously talking from campaign to campaign. Playing your character true to character and portraying that character within a given campaign is central to immersion and aids in the immersion of everyone else at the table.

Campaign length doesn't really enter into it.
I've seen players play the same personality in different characters between and within campaigns. It is... less interesting for sure. And possibly annoying, depending on the character trait(s) being portrayed.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
So you don't like long campaigns?
Even within long campaigns players don't necessarily stick with the same character all the way through; and yes, any individual character can become boring - be it to play or to run with - long before the campaign itself does.

I often turn over my PCs within a campaign just to keep things fresh. I'll have several, and cycle them in and out depending on some combination of a) what's needed for that particular mission, b) whether the character itself has a reason to go, and-or c) which one I feel like playing at the time.
 

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
I get what you're saying here, though my take is that the difference is small enough to not matter in that the end result - the actions the character takes and the things it says during play - will turn out very much the same via either process.
Yeah, I think that has to do with both approaches involving use of actor stance, i.e. making your character's decisions using only your character's knowledge and perceptions. The difference, for me, is in how immersive the two approaches are. If I'm at the table thinking, for example. about whether my character's decisions are too smart for his/her ability scores, that's time I'm not inhabiting my character because that's a player concern.

Contrast this with someone playing in true pawn stance, where the in-play results will likely turn out more optimal on a consistent basis due to the player looking at things from a fully gamist perspective.
I think equating stance with play priority is a little iffy, but I can see how pawn stance applies well to gamist objectives. I think there's some of that, actually, in my dislike for roleplaying to the character sheet. From where I sit, it seems a bit like treating roleplaying as a game in which the competition is about being true to an objective standard, represented by the character sheet, if that makes sense. Thus comments from some of the participants in this discussion, e.g. @Hussar, about the "judging" of participants' roleplaying being a significant component of play at their tables. That all seems like something that would work against immersion for me because it's not something my character cares about.

I rarely use reaction rolls and pretty much never use social interaction DCs (an advantage of playing in a system that eschews such things).

Further, if you write LG on your character sheet and then proceed to consistently play the character as CG I don't count that as an alignment change per se, as your in-play alignment was never LG in the first place. Unless someone casts a detection spell, I usually allow a few sessions to go by before trying to nail down a character's alignment, to give the player a chance to run the character out and sort it.
Yeah, by change a character's alignment I meant change what's on the character sheet to match the character's behavior rather than change anything about the character itself. For mechanical purposes, as DM, I go by what's on the sheet until such time that such a change is made. Although I have somewhat of a system in place to handle this, it hasn't actually ever come up in one of my games because I guess I'm not all that critical about characters behaving according to their alignment.

I very much believe they can be in conflict, and if it gets too glaring I'll ask the player to change the role-playing to better suit the stats. That said, more often IME it's the other players that squawk long before the DM does.
I wonder why you go in this direction when, in your opinion, a player's roleplaying conflicts with their ability scores, whereas when it conflicts with something else on the character sheet (the character's alignment), it's the alignment that has to budge rather than the roleplaying.

Checks incentivize using one's stats to best advantage, sure. Inspiration or similar meta-mechanics are something I won't touch with a barge pole.
Right, (and relevant to the discussion of immersion) doesn't that align with how a real person's talents and weaknesses incentivize their own behavior? As for Inspiration, I use it as DM to push players away from optimal play and towards complications that might make things interesting from a narrative perspective.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Yeah, I think that has to do with both approaches involving use of actor stance, i.e. making your character's decisions using only your character's knowledge and perceptions. The difference, for me, is in how immersive the two approaches are. If I'm at the table thinking, for example. about whether my character's decisions are too smart for his/her ability scores, that's time I'm not inhabiting my character because that's a player concern.
Well, I suppose if one sees inhabiting one's character as also inhabiting the ability scores (and other things e.g. skills, background, etc.) that come with it, all is good.
Yeah, by change a character's alignment I meant change what's on the character sheet to match the character's behavior rather than change anything about the character itself. For mechanical purposes, as DM, I go by what's on the sheet until such time that such a change is made.
I don't, as I've had players who would abuse the crap out of this given the chance.
Although I have somewhat of a system in place to handle this, it hasn't actually ever come up in one of my games because I guess I'm not all that critical about characters behaving according to their alignment.
I kind of have to be conscious of a character's (actual, not written) alignment as there's various spells, items, and effects in my game that detect and-or key off of it.
I wonder why you go in this direction when, in your opinion, a player's roleplaying conflicts with their ability scores, whereas when it conflicts with something else on the character sheet (the character's alignment), it's the alignment that has to budge rather than the roleplaying.
I see ability scores as locked-in features of the character, while alignment is more malleable based on what the character does.

If you roleplay your charisma-8 character as the world's greatest diplomat and somehow get the dice to consistently back you up on this, you don't get to change your charisma score to 17 and neither do I-as-DM. But if you consistently roleplay your "LG" character as an unreliable chaotic trickster (something I've seen many times in the past) then I'm going to ignore your sheet and anything triggering off alignment is going to see you as CN.

An example of my own: a PC of mine was rolled up and introduced with the idea that she'd be LE - a spy, not out to do anything nasty to the other PCs so much as just do what she had to do whatever it took (kind of like a James Bond-ish idea). Within five minutes of introducing her in play a characterization just simply took hold, the whole LE idea went flying out the window, and she became pretty much CN/CE. (a later wild magic effect of some sort forced an alignment change to CG; as neither of her classes could be G she had to change both of those too, but that's another story)
Right, (and relevant to the discussion of immersion) doesn't that align with how a real person's talents and weaknesses incentivize their own behavior?
A real person kinda has no choice but to behave according to their "stats". A strong person can (and will) do things a weak person cannot. A smart person will have on average more ideas or insights than a dumb person. Etc.
 

If you roleplay your charisma-8 character as the world's greatest diplomat and somehow get the dice to consistently back you up on this, you don't get to change your charisma score to 17 and neither do I-as-DM. But if you consistently roleplay your "LG" character as an unreliable chaotic trickster (something I've seen many times in the past) then I'm going to ignore your sheet and anything triggering off alignment is going to see you as CN.
Just honing in on this bit... in 5e there is no prescribed way to play an 8 or a 17 Charisma. A player can pretend their character is the greatest diplomat if they really want to do so. If the dice back them up, good for them! It doesn't change the stats on the sheet, however, and over the long run, that strategy is going to fall short in ability checks. The party might have something to say about it, too: "Look, Jangor the Awkward, how about we let the Bard handle this negotiation, ok?" As a 5e DM, it is none of my business how someone chooses to play their character. If they want to risk the high likelihood of failure in ability checks for playing against their stats, that's on them. The DM is not going to utter the words "Your character wouldn't try/say/think" that at our table, though.
 


Hussar

Legend
/snip
Thus comments from some of the participants in this discussion, e.g. @Hussar, about the "judging" of participants' roleplaying being a significant component of play at their tables. That all seems like something that would work against immersion for me because it's not something my character cares about.
Sure, fair enough. Your, my or Dave's character doesn't care about anything, because, well, they don't actually exist. However, you, me and Dave do exist and I find it immersion breaking when other players are so entirely self-absorbed as to completely not care about how they portray their character in a manner consistent with the character that they created. Immersion depends on everyone at the table, not just me. At least, that's the way I view it. I certainly wouldn't want my behavior to hurt your good time. So, I try to present a character that is consistent and as immersive (for lack of a better term - believable? relatable? ) as I can for the other players at the table as well as for myself.

I find the notion that someone is playing their character 100% for themselves to be the bane of gaming tables. They just suck all the air from the room because everything is about them and anything that isn't about them isn't important enough to pay any attention to.


Just honing in on this bit... in 5e there is no prescribed way to play an 8 or a 17 Charisma. A player can pretend their character is the greatest diplomat if they really want to do so. If the dice back them up, good for them! It doesn't change the stats on the sheet, however, and over the long run, that strategy is going to fall short in ability checks. The party might have something to say about it, too: "Look, Jangor the Awkward, how about we let the Bard handle this negotiation, ok?" As a 5e DM, it is none of my business how someone chooses to play their character. If they want to risk the high likelihood of failure in ability checks for playing against their stats, that's on them. The DM is not going to utter the words "Your character wouldn't try/say/think" that at our table, though.
Nor mine. But, so much of the sort of "soft" mechanical end of things doesn't require die rolls. I find that players who don't care about their character sheets will make impassioned speeches, hoping to game the DM into a success without a roll. After all, I've been repeatedly told that in 5e, only the DM calls for rolls, and, many DM's in the face of play, will skip rolls. Or, again, if your low Wis character never does anything impulsive or your low Int character never makes a mistake, well, it gets old in a hurry.

Which is fair. You should play with people you want. My point is I just am not in the habit of having the whole group walk on eggshells around one player's particular sense of immersion.
Hardly eggshells. "Play the character you created" shouldn't be considered "walking on eggshells". That should be the base standard that everyone starts at. That's the bare minimum of play. And, frankly, I have zero interest in beer and pretzels games anymore. It's just mind numbingly boring to me. I'll do my best to entertain the table with my character and I expect everyone else to do the same. Self-absorbed, "I'm here for myself and my own enjoyment" players can find another table. Put a bit of effort into it and I'm ecstatically happy. Just a tiny bit of effort. Smidgeon. A soupçon. That's all I'm asking for. Just a tiny bit of effort from the players. Which, unfortunately, is too much to expect apparently.
 

My view is people are there to play a game and have fun, and that in different ways. But they are not there to perform for others (some can and are great, others are much more dry and not into characterization). Ever since I started really embracing this is just a game, table play has been ten times better
 

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
Well, I suppose if one sees inhabiting one's character as also inhabiting the ability scores (and other things e.g. skills, background, etc.) that come with it, all is good.
But, in all seriousness, how does one "inhabit" a number on a character sheet? The character I'm interested in inhabiting is not the character sheet. It's a fiction in my imagination.

I don't, as I've had players who would abuse the crap out of this given the chance.
I'm trying to imagine how this works, but I've got nothing.

I kind of have to be conscious of a character's (actual, not written) alignment as there's various spells, items, and effects in my game that detect and-or key off of it.
See, this is where I think it's useful to have something written on the character sheet, because there are mechanics with which it interacts. I have mechanics that interact with alignment in my game, and I want my players to be aware of those mechanics and how they affect resolution, so the alignment on the sheet is the one being used for that. I do have a system for tracking alignment, but like I said, it hasn't seen much use.

I see ability scores as locked-in features of the character, while alignment is more malleable based on what the character does.

If you roleplay your charisma-8 character as the world's greatest diplomat and somehow get the dice to consistently back you up on this, you don't get to change your charisma score to 17 and neither do I-as-DM. But if you consistently roleplay your "LG" character as an unreliable chaotic trickster (something I've seen many times in the past) then I'm going to ignore your sheet and anything triggering off alignment is going to see you as CN.

An example of my own: a PC of mine was rolled up and introduced with the idea that she'd be LE - a spy, not out to do anything nasty to the other PCs so much as just do what she had to do whatever it took (kind of like a James Bond-ish idea). Within five minutes of introducing her in play a characterization just simply took hold, the whole LE idea went flying out the window, and she became pretty much CN/CE. (a later wild magic effect of some sort forced an alignment change to CG; as neither of her classes could be G she had to change both of those too, but that's another story)
Sure, and that dichotomy's in keeping with the way 1E (and, I think, most D&D) treats alignment (and ability scores), and that's the way I treat them too, i.e. roleplaying can have an effect on alignment, but not on ability scores. The way either of them directly affect roleplaying in my games, however, is the same: zero.

A real person kinda has no choice but to behave according to their "stats". A strong person can (and will) do things a weak person cannot. A smart person will have on average more ideas or insights than a dumb person. Etc.
I was talking about the idea of incentive, though. There are real incentives for strong people to use their superior strength just as there are real incentives for smart people to use their superior intelligence. But how is an unintelligent person incentivized to have fewer ideas or insights?
 

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
Sure, fair enough. Your, my or Dave's character doesn't care about anything, because, well, they don't actually exist. However, you, me and Dave do exist and I find it immersion breaking when other players are so entirely self-absorbed as to completely not care about how they portray their character in a manner consistent with the character that they created. Immersion depends on everyone at the table, not just me. At least, that's the way I view it. I certainly wouldn't want my behavior to hurt your good time. So, I try to present a character that is consistent and as immersive (for lack of a better term - believable? relatable? ) as I can for the other players at the table as well as for myself.

I find the notion that someone is playing their character 100% for themselves to be the bane of gaming tables. They just suck all the air from the room because everything is about them and anything that isn't about them isn't important enough to pay any attention to.
Well, the ostensible topic is immersion here, so I would think that what our characters fictionally care about would be a very important factor in that phenomenon. Of course the social contract and the other people at any table that I play at are far more important that the fiction we are there to share.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
But, in all seriousness, how does one "inhabit" a number on a character sheet? The character I'm interested in inhabiting is not the character sheet. It's a fiction in my imagination.
Sure, but if the fiction in my imagination is a brilliant self-assured nimble wizard who is now and then somewhat clumsy - and that's what I'm roleplaying - yet the sheet says St 16, In 9, Wi 8, Dx 16, Co 12, Ch 7, I'd say that anyone would be quite justified in telling me I'm outright doing it wrong and I'd have no defense whatsoever.

Before you inhabit the house you have to build it; and if the building materials you have are wood then you can't use them to make a brick house no matter how hard you try. The best you can do is carefully paint the wood so it looks like brick.

Well, the analogy here is that all those things on the character sheet are your building materials.
I'm trying to imagine how this works, but I've got nothing.
Player writes LG on character sheet. Player has character consistently act neither L nor G at such times when it's advantageous to do so. When called on it either in the fiction or at the table, player's (somewhat meta) defense is "Go ahead, cast Know Alignment - I'm Lawful Good. It says so right here!"

I saw this once too often back in the day, and thenceforth have made it very clear that while you can write an alignment on the sheet it might not hold up if you don't then at least vaguely play to it.
See, this is where I think it's useful to have something written on the character sheet, because there are mechanics with which it interacts. I have mechanics that interact with alignment in my game, and I want my players to be aware of those mechanics and how they affect resolution, so the alignment on the sheet is the one being used for that.
Where I make it very clear that the alignment those mechanics are going to see is what's arisen out of how the character has actually been played, unless the character is brand new and hasn't established any patterns yet.
I was talking about the idea of incentive, though. There are real incentives for strong people to use their superior strength just as there are real incentives for smart people to use their superior intelligence. But how is an unintelligent person incentivized to have fewer ideas or insights?
They're not. They're just incapable of having more, no matter what incentives are put in front of them. And when you say stats don't matter it kinda comes across as a desire, in this example, to ignore or brush off this incapability and have the character instead be able to come up with all the ideas and insights it wants to (i.e. you're playing to your intelligence, not the character's).
 

Hussar

Legend
My view is people are there to play a game and have fun, and that in different ways. But they are not there to perform for others (some can and are great, others are much more dry and not into characterization). Ever since I started really embracing this is just a game, table play has been ten times better
Fair enough. If you lower the bar low enough, then, sure. I look at it like this: if the DM took your position, it would make for a bad game. If the DM put zero effort into portraying NPC's and differentiating between them, then the game would be terrible. So, why do player's get a pass? If I'm trying my hardest, as the DM, to present a believable world to you so that you can immerse yourself in it, then the very least you can do is reciprocate and give the DM something to work with.

If the players are so disinterested in playing characters as anything more than pawns, then why would I possibly bother putting any depth into the game?

But, in all seriousness, how does one "inhabit" a number on a character sheet? The character I'm interested in inhabiting is not the character sheet. It's a fiction in my imagination.
Well, with a low Int, there are a number of things you can do. Make mistakes from time to time. Maybe speak making grammatical errors. Deliberately, as a player, choose the less optimum choice. There are a thousand ways to portray this.
Sure, and that dichotomy's in keeping with the way 1E (and, I think, most D&D) treats alignment (and ability scores), and that's the way I treat them too, i.e. roleplaying can have an effect on alignment, but not on ability scores. The way either of them directly affect roleplaying in my games, however, is the same: zero.
But, that's not entirely true. Lots of players will overplay their character's abilities in order to bypass checks entirely. Roleplaying can most certainly have an affect on ability scores.
I was talking about the idea of incentive, though. There are real incentives for strong people to use their superior strength just as there are real incentives for smart people to use their superior intelligence. But how is an unintelligent person incentivized to have fewer ideas or insights?
Just because you the player have a brilliant plan so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel, doesn't mean that your character does. Don't forward that plan to the group. Seems pretty simple to me.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Supporter
find it immersion breaking when other players are so entirely self-absorbed as to completely not care about how they portray their character in a manner consistent with the character that they created
You appear, for ideological reasons, to be conflating "terrible to play with" with "doesn't role-play the way I want them to". A conviction that your way is the only good way - that others must play the way you want them to or be discounted as unenjoyable - satisfies well the characterisation "entirely self-absorbed".

Tiresome for everyone else at the table. Watching someone play the same character over and over and over is about as much fun as watching paint dry.
That's a lazy criticism and can cut both ways. It can be exactly as tiresome to watch someone indulging their conceits for a character putatively different from themselves. It can be exactly as self-absorbed to insist on indulging ones amateur acting in front of a group who didn't sign up for that performance. That really is less fun than watching paint dry.

However, you also grossly misunderstand what I have been advocating. Consider again the meaning of mutatis mutandis. Think about what it would mean for a player following the style I advocate to reach 3rd level as a paladin.
 

Fair enough. If you lower the bar low enough, then, sure. I look at it like this: if the DM took your position, it would make for a bad game. If the DM put zero effort into portraying NPC's and differentiating between them, then the game would be terrible. So, why do player's get a pass? If I'm trying my hardest, as the DM, to present a believable world to you so that you can immerse yourself in it, then the very least you can do is reciprocate and give the DM something to work with.

Honestly I think you are overvaluing the acting and performance side of the game. Definitely it is good if the GM makes distinctions between NPCs (I don't expect the heroic knight we just helped to behave like a villain in the game). But, unless the GM is particularly skilled at it, I don't really care for GMs who get heavy into acting out their parts. Certainly I want them to speak in character. But I don't mind a bit of dryness and talking like themselves. I don't want a GM who acts like Matt Mercer for example. That kind of play just isn't for me. I've seen this when GMs try too hard to do what you are describing, rather than just relax and be themselves. I'd much rather play with a GM who is relaxed, and presents a clear, believable world in a natural way, than one using voices for NPCs (I actually find the latter really off-putting except with a couple of GMs who just happen to do that really well)
 

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