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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.


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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey

R_Chance

Adventurer
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.
I agree. When players know the rules, it's not much different than understanding the world around you irl. Some players will have a better knowledge of the rules than others and some people irl have a better knowledge of how the world works irl. In some situations (in game or irl) some people calculate the odds, while others might just "go for it". Either is a "realistic" way to address the world, in game or real life. I'd say verisimilitude is preserved with either approach.
 

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Hussar

Legend
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.
Really? I'm the total opposite. Nothing yanks me out of the moment more than seeing a player, whether myself or someone else at the table, totally ignore their character when playing. Or, to put it another way, if you're really inhabiting your character's head, internalizing the character that is created, rather than simply choosing the most pragmatic choice, then it shouldn't really occur to you that there are better choices to be made.
 

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
Really? I'm the total opposite. Nothing yanks me out of the moment more than seeing a player, whether myself or someone else at the table, totally ignore their character when playing. Or, to put it another way, if you're really inhabiting your character's head, internalizing the character that is created, rather than simply choosing the most pragmatic choice, then it shouldn't really occur to you that there are better choices to be made.
Yes, absolutely. I don't know what you mean by "ignore their character" but it seems to emphasize the idea that the character is a separate entity from the player's roleplaying of it, whereas my goal as a player is to identify with the character. I can't do that while self-consciously editing my roleplaying to conform with some idea of what the character "should" be like.
 

Hussar

Legend
Yes, absolutely. I don't know what you mean by "ignore their character" but it seems to emphasize the idea that the character is a separate entity from the player's roleplaying of it, whereas my goal as a player is to identify with the character. I can't do that while self-consciously editing my roleplaying to conform with some idea of what the character "should" be like.
By "ignore their character", I mean that your Int 6 Barbarian is erudite and intellectual. Your CN rogue is completely dependable and never does anything spontaneous. Your (I keep saying "your" here, I don't necessarily mean you, @Hriston) cleric character that never once mentions anything about faith or beliefs but is basically a spell casting fighter.

So on and so forth. Watching players completely ignore the character they made so that they can play whatever they feel like completely pulls me out of anything remotely like immersion.
 

TheSword

Legend
I love when you’re playing a game and realize that you’re four hours into a game that was supposed to last 2 1/2 and everyone was having so much fun they didn’t realize.

I don’t think it matters if you’re talking first person or third; playing to character or playing to type. As long as you’re caught up in the moment and enjoying the game experience I’m happy.
 

Reynard

Legend
I love when you’re playing a game and realize that you’re four hours into a game that was supposed to last 2 1/2 and everyone was having so much fun they didn’t realize.

I don’t think it matters if you’re talking first person or third; playing to character or playing to type. As long as you’re caught up in the moment and enjoying the game experience I’m happy.
This raises and interesting question: is there a difference, for purposes of this discussion, between "engagement" and "immersion"?
 



prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I’d say they’re synonymous.
I dunno. I think it's possible to lose track of time outside the game without being completely (or particularly at all) immersed in one's character. Happens with board games, at least for me. IME, it's more about how much of my available bandwidth I devote to the game in question.
 


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.
I see Role Playing Games regularly come into conflict with two major groups of Players, one is the rules lawyers more interested in the "games" of RPGs and the other, the story tellers more interested in the "role playing".

Fortunately, for the hobby, the majority of Players are in neither of the above camps and mix "games" and "role playing" equally. For example, counting hit points in numbers rather than narrative wounds, while still being immersed in role playing that epic Charisma role by convincing the dragon boss to make nice after taking the whole Player party down below half-HP..
 

TheSword

Legend
I dunno. I think it's possible to lose track of time outside the game without being completely (or particularly at all) immersed in one's character. Happens with board games, at least for me. IME, it's more about how much of my available bandwidth I devote to the game in question.
I think you can be immersed in a game without being immersed in a character.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
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

If you have sufficient language skills and know how to tell a story so good that it immerses the audience, you can then tell the story of telling stories, or of being in the audience.

The telling of stories is a craft. As soon as they were using language to teach any craft, they were talking about how to tell stories, too.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
If you have sufficient language skills and know how to tell a story so good that it immerses the audience, you can then tell the story of telling stories, or of being in the audience.

The telling of stories is a craft. As soon as they were using language to teach any craft, they were talking about how to tell stories, too.
That's a reasonable position. I think I was getting at the idea that telling stories seems likely to have happened before talking about telling stories, if not necessarily by a lot.
 

turnip_farmer

Adventurer
By "ignore their character", I mean that your Int 6 Barbarian is erudite and intellectual. Your CN rogue is completely dependable and never does anything spontaneous. Your (I keep saying "your" here, I don't necessarily mean you, @Hriston) cleric character that never once mentions anything about faith or beliefs but is basically a spell casting fighter.

So on and so forth. Watching players completely ignore the character they made so that they can play whatever they feel like completely pulls me out of anything remotely like immersion.
I'm always intrigued watching clever people try and play stupid characters. You can sometimes see the internal struggle when they figure something out but don't want to say it aloud because they think their character would not be able to.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I'm always intrigued watching clever people try and play stupid characters. You can sometimes see the internal struggle when they figure something out but don't want to say it aloud because they think their character would not be able to.
Unless the character really is as dumb as a turnip (and then, you have to ask if they should even be out adventuring), it's hard to conclusively say that a character would not be able to figure something out. They may not be as bright as someone with more intelligence, but is there any sort of objective rating of what solution requires a particularly level of intelligence? I don't think so.
 

turnip_farmer

Adventurer
Unless the character really is as dumb as a turnip (and then, you have to ask if they should even be out adventuring), it's hard to conclusively say that a character would not be able to figure something out. They may not be as bright as someone with more intelligence, but is there any sort of objective rating of what solution requires a particularly level of intelligence? I don't think so.
I've had players with characters dumber than turnips, especially when enforcing rolling for ability scores.

But either way, it just feels wrong to some people when they are the only one able to put two and two together, if they're supposed to be playing the party idiot. I have a player like this in my current campaign. He will have his character 'accidentally' do things or word things in such a way as to drop massive hints for his comrades, while pretending not to know what he's talking about.

It just feels better for him that way, I guess.
 

G

Guest 6801328

Guest
The underlying cause of so many arguments is, I think, two entirely different definitions of immersion, of what it means to "inhabit" your character.

Type A means doing what you think your character would do.

Type B means you and your character are having the same experience.

To use the canonical example of trolls and fire:

Player A thinks, "My character wouldn't know that you need to use fire on trolls, so by pretending I don't know that, I'm inhabiting my character."

Player B thinks, "The first time this happened I was freaking out and thought we were going to die, and it was awesome. Now, however, I know all about trolls, so pretending I don't feels like a disconnect with my character."

And the corollary to B is: "Except that the player next to me is new, so for his sake I'll pretend to be freaking out."

Both approaches are totally valid. The problem is that the two philosophies lead to totally different answers in how to handle a wide range of scenarios.

EDIT: ...lead to two totally different definitions of "good roleplaying".
 
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I started in 1986, and immersion, though I didn't have a word for it at the time, was the thing that immediately struck me about play (just this sense of really being there). And that is what transformed all those pencils, dice, paper and a musty living room into a whole other world for me. I never really considered the history of the word in the hobby and found this article particularly interesting (surprised to see how far back the term goes).
 

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