Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Identification and Immersion as Adventure Game Objectives

Stephen J. Grodzicki author of Low Fantasy Gaming and the upcoming Lowlife 2090 challenged me on my last theory article, "Bounded Player Agency" 

And he forced me to refine and resolve some of my ideas about what a TTRPG is. So here is a more honed discussion of the aims of a traditional Role-Playing Game. 

See, a few months ago, I pointed out that there has long been a false dichotomy between role-playing and "roll playing". As long as you are looking at the game material, considering the narrative, and making choices based on what your character would rationally do given a limited perspective and imperfect information.  You do not need to feel for your character or see them as anything other than a playing piece that is not much more than a sophisticated pawn on a narrative chessboard,

But then, how do I resolve my portrayal of immersion like this?

Ultimately, I am a role-player and a psychonaut: I want to visit other worlds when I play, see new things, and experience strange Horrors. I want to laugh at my own mortality from the safety of my office chair.  And that means I want immersion, not a game of storycraft. And my players do, too. They find strongly immersion - breaking mechanics disrupt their experience. 

Well, first I confess to imprecision. I am building on my older work, but a blog article is self-contained except where hyperlinked, and a definition of terms was definitely in order. 

Immersion is a continuum. And it emerges from an earlier phenomenon of Identification, which needs a little parsing. 


When you are playing any game, you have one piece that is yours; that represents you and your progress towards completion of the game. When you play Monopoly you have ownership of one piece. When your turn comes around, you don't switch from the top hat to the thimble just because the thimble is closer to Park Place, it isn't you. And you would object if the race car's player moved the top hat because "their" piece is in jail.

In the war games that Dungeons & Dragons evolved from, "you" had control over a small armed force and it is your job to see your army secure a higher number of victory conditions than your opponent. In their original conception, like H. G. Wells' Tiny Wars, individual pieces were not particularly important, and sacrificing a few to attain victory was how you won the game. The rules were highly limited as to what you could make each soldier do.

Stratego introduced a new element with the introduction of Narrative Play, and improvised rules adjudicated by an impartial referee. You could now have soldiers do things other than move and shoot. They could hide, lay traps, change the layout of the battle map, etc. within the limits of what the referee thought was reasonable for a simulation of warfare.


But Stratego inadvertently added a new dimension to play in the process: Immersion. Because your armies now could do so many things that you could not before, it engaged new parts of the brain. A tree on the map was now not just either an impediment or cover, it could also be a barricade, a sniper nest, trap, or bridge. A farmhouse could be an ambush, or a way of getting soldiers warm and dry to get an advantage.

To make the most of this new dimension, players have to think from the perspective of the pieces they are controlling. A farmhouse is now dangerous and needs to be explored with caution; troop movements, more circumspect. If you wanted to meet your victory conditions, imagination became your best weapon.

Immersion also made troops more valuable. If every troop can help cut down a tree, wait in ambush, set a trap, or scout terrain, you valued them more and used them wisely.

Barons of Braunstein (retroclone)
By James & Robyn George
As wargames continued to evolve, the role and adjudicate power of the referee expanded. Games like Braunstein and  Brownstone took both Identification and Immersion to a new level by creating scenarios where players controlled just a few characters, many of whom had goals like steal X from the safe in the Mayor's office before the army arrives at Y, Often goals at odds with other characters and held in secret. This forced players to immerse themselves enough to ask "what can I do to get him into that office?" Players had to start thinking from their character's perspective.

Dungeons & Dragons was a watershed in the evolution of the wargame. It removed the need for a board by moving the game entirely into a narrative medium. The miniatures could still be used, but they were hardly necessary. Players were limited to seeing what their characters could reasonably see, rather than a whole table. Immersion via Narrative is the primary means of play.

Immersion and Depth

Immersion  is highly variable. It is sufficient immersion to enjoy a D&D game to be able to visualize what is going on around your PC, be aware of their abilities and goals, and use your creativity to decide what to do on your turn. 

This is the level of immersion that Stephen is talking about above. There is an absolute joy in playing a game that consistently rewards clever and imaginitive problem that requires no more than that.

But there has been a tendency to go much deeper into the imagined headspace of the PC from the very beginning.  

The natural human tendency to treat narratives as true and to seek meaning in story means that as players engage with the narrative they may experience a sense of duality where they don't just identify with the character, they experience "emotional bleed-over." or "bleed." The game can become meaningful; your victory in a fight can be resounding, a monster can feel intimidating,  you can develop fondness for NPCs.

The level to which you allow yourself to become immersed is a matter of your own comfort level, the social conventions of the table, and the quality of the narrative. Allowing a moderately deep level of Role-play can be cathartic and invigorating.

Too deep, and the game starts to feel like group therapy, or awkward situations arise where players get angry at each other for in-game behavior. I've had a front seat to that once or twice... Not my idea of a good time.

Over the years, conventions have sprung up about what is acceptable immersion at the table and how far things like in-character acting are allowed to avoid uncomfortable situations caused by in-game narrative.

"Deep Role-Play" Bias

Generally, there is a bias in the community towards "deep role play", meaning role play where everyone play-acts their character and the DM provides complex character interaction with NPCs to help everyone achieve a state of deep immersion. It is one of the reasons for the bias against "roll-playing": one or more players who just want to kick in the door can kill rhe vibe for players looking for a rush of emotional satisfaction.

I am guilty of that bias in my previous article as above. 

This is not the be-all and end-all of Traditional Roleplaying Immersion. 

Consider Stephen's mention of good gameplay. I will assume, with the insight of having read some of his books and blog that he is talking about clever actions taken in character to solve problems, like tricking a monster into moving away from its treasure hoard so it can be trapped while its treasures are plundered, or using lamp oil to stop a pursuer by creating a well-placed slick.

This does require Immersion. Just a different level apropos to the particular table. Enough to ask the all important question "what can I (as my PC) do to solve this problem?"  (win this fight, find the treasure, get out of here alive, et.) in fact, I would say there is a lot to be said for this level of Immersion, as it invites less interpersonal conflict at the table. 


It is exactly because we have privileged a deeper level of immersion that we have started seeing players turn characters as a reflection of the Self. The potential to get catharsis or emotional edification from role-playing means players started using D&D and other TTRPGs as a means of wish-fulfillment or self-exploration. This is why many PCs have become idealized versions of the player and games that allow a lot of character customization are in high demand.

This in turn has led to the emergence of collaborative storytelling. 


History repeats itself. As new innovations in refereed and improvisational play brought higher resolution to wargames it created Immersion as a byproduct. Playing with Immersion as a central mechanism spawned a whole new genre: the Table Top Roleplaying Game.

Because TTRPGs were vastly improved by refinements in narrative technique (Hickman's Ravenloft material and the more flexible structures of games like Rolemaster and Runequest come to mind, ) they, too produced the byproduct of Collaborative Storytelling.

Most TTRPGs are pretty poor at creating stories on a structural level. But as they allowed for greater character customization, and as culturally, deeper Immersion became more acceptable, players who wanted it could very effectively turn TTRPGs into an exercise in creating a sophisticated story as a group that offered better wish fulfillment, greater catharsis, and enabled self-exploration.

Games built using Collaborative Storytelling as the central aim and mechanism branched off of TTRPGs to be ome the Storygame movement.

Storygames are centered around using Narrative to create fiction and Art for the edification of the players. Often they use mechanical structures that limit Immersion at a particular balance point and change the parameters of the relationship between the Player and the PC in a way that makes the Player more like the character's Guardian Angel (or personal Devil) than their pilot. Although I have a few storygame developers like the cool folks over at Thought Police, who have made a compelling case about immersion and collaborative storytelling not necessarily being mutually exclusive.

I am looking into their argument. 

It is the case, however, that the light level of immersion Stephen prefers would not suit most kinds of storygame play. 

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